Theme of Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare, the master of dramatics in the English literary tradition, has incorporated certain unique themes in the play Merchant of Venice. The play is, to this day, universally read, analyzed, critiqued and taught all over the world. Not only that, the characters Antonio, Portia and even Shylock the Jew are widely acclaimed.
The Merchant of Venice is a play whose central theme can be identified as the conflict between selflessness and self interest. This main theme drives the plot and moves the play forward, influencing the action of the central characters. Other themes include greed, the cyclic increase of hatred, mercy, prejudice and the opposites- playing versus perception. This essay on Merchant of Venice is an analysis; themes that dominate this play have been explored and explained.
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The main theme of The Merchant of Venice is the conflict between self interest and love. On the surface level, the major difference between Shylock the Jew and the Christian characters of the play is their level of compassion. On one hand, the Christians value the importance of human relationships over their business contacts. Unlike them, on the other hand, Shylock is heavily invested in material gain.
However, Shylock is agonized over his loss of money, reportedly running through the streets lamenting for them. He even goes as far as calling his ducats his daughter, suggesting that he values money as much as his own child. Hence in Shylock’s case, greed overpowers compassion. However, when we inspect closely, this difference between the two opposite characters breaks down.
In Act III, Scene I, Shylock’s dissatisfaction is not due to the monetary loss of the ring, rather the fact that his daughter sold the token of love from his dead wife. Hence, we see that certain human relationships do seem to hold more importance in Shylock’s life than money. We also see that Shylock makes a strange demand from Antonio- a pound of his flesh in exchange of money. Hence, we can conclude that Shylock’s resentment is much deeper rooted than his monetary greed.
Equally complicated is the case of the Christian characters of The Merchant of Venice. One of the major Merchant of Venice themes being love versus money, we do see some materialistic views in the apparently ‘good’ characters too. Even though Bassanio and Portia grow to love each other, it was not the case of pure love initially.
Bassanio’s main motivation in asking her hand in marriage was due to his humungous debt, and that he needed Portia’s money to clear it. After taking money from Antonio, Bassanio insists that this act of lending him money was an investment on Antonio’s part. Even though the latter likes to lend money solely out of a moral responsibility, Bassanio seems eager to view their correspondence as a business matter. One of the highlights of The Merchant of Venice themes was Shylock’s argument.
He eloquently states that Jews, just like Christians, are human beings. Antonio’s hate for Shylock, the latter argues, is only because of his religious identity. Hence, even though the Christians speak about mercy the most, in fact, they are showing prejudice towards Shylock. Therefore, there is a constant conflict of the themes love and self interest. Hence this is the central theme of The Merchant of Venice.
The divine nature of mercy is yet another one of the driving themes of the play. The conflict between the Christians and Shylock reaches its peak over the issue of the extent of mercy. Even though the law is in Shylock’s favour, which the Christian characters also acknowledge, they still expect him to show mercy even though it means the violation of the contract.
In a sense, Shylock too is right as he wants to remain true to the contract. During the final trial, Shylock asks the disguised Portia what might possibly force him to become merciful. Portia stresses that the quality of mercy is never strained, clarifying what remains at stake in the argument. As God is merciful and it is an attribute of the almighty himself, humans should also exhibit mercy. God’s power is greater than any earthly power, law or majesty.
We can trace this understanding of mercy, as narrated by Portia, as the manner in which the difference between the Old and New Testament was understood by the Christians of Elizabethan period. ‘Old Testament God’ is the epitome of strict adherence to regulations and divine rules, giving harsh punishment to the ones who go astray. On the contrary, God’s attributes in the New Testament is heralded by human-like qualities such as mercy; and the emphasis has shifted to the adherence of spirit.
Hence, the spirit of the law gets more precendence over the letter of the law. God is a forgiver in the New Testament. Rather than outright punishment, God offers salvation to those who want to be forgiven, actively seeking mercy. There was of course, strong anti-Jewish and pro-Christian agenda concealed in Portia’s warning against pursuing the law strictly.
Renaissance drama had it’s limitations, and thus, minorities like Shylock had to be portrayed as a villain. Hence, his character was written to fit into the theme of good versus evil. Shylock is therefore, unable to show compassion to his adversaries by default. The audience of the sixteenth century would not expect a character like Shylock to show any mercy, therefore, it was up to the Christian actors to play this role. Once Portia successfully turned Shylock’s most powerful weapon- the law, against him, it gave her the opportunity to exercise the mercy that she advocates so effectively. Yet, she corners Shylock, strips him of the bond, his money, estate and dignity.
She is the one who forces him to kneel and beg. The question remains whether it was right to return Shylock only half of his goods, taking away what might be more valuable to him- his profession and religion. The characters force Shylock to convert, and thus disable him from his moneylending profession.
According to Shylock, this was the reason behind Antonio’s behaviour such as taunting and spitting on him in public. Hence, we see that it is self-interst that gives rise to this act of mercy, not from his concern for the fellow man. Contrary to how Portia presents, the play Merhant of Venice does not manage to incorporate mercy is such a sweet, gracefull and selfless theme.
Accumulation of hatred is another one of the play’s main themes. Shylock claims throughout that he is only applying whatever lessons he has learnt from his Christian neighbours. This claim of his becomes an essential part of his argument during the trial as well as his character. In his very first appearance, Shylock’s mission is revealed as solely to mean harm to Antonio. However, this resentment of his is inspired by the injuries and insults that Antonio subjected to him in the past.
One could argue that Antonio fully realizes his culpability in this situation when he was nearly executed. When the trial ends, Antonio still remains unfair to Shylock, demanding that he convert to their religion. However, he inflicts upon him no other punishment. Other Christians such as Gratiano threaten Shylock; however, Antonio is no longer seen kicking on spitting on Shylock. We can say that the Duke, as well as Antonio, puts an end to this conflict by depriving it of the injustices it needs to fuel it.
A main theme we would like to discuss in this essay on Merchant of Venice is prejudice. The prejudice runs deep and strong on both sides. The Christian side hates Shylock vehemently just because of his Jewish beliefs. On the other hand, Shylock hates them in return. However, the audience is given legitimate reasoning behind Shylock’s behaviour and prejudice.
These reasons include their religious opposition to his profession of moneylending or usury, persecution and hindrance to both his business and his self respect. The Merchant of Venice also reveals how Shylock lives under a double standard and the cruel nature of Christian hatred of Jews. Shylock, though expected to show mercy, is not shown any in return from the dominating and ruling class of Christians in the play.
In the analysis, themes of money and materialism come under close scrutiny among The Merchant of Venice themes. The importance of money to Christians has been illustrated here. To most of the Christian characters, money is definitely of the most importance even though Antonio is shown as a compassionate and humane merchant. We observe that the metaphors of devotion and love are often cast in terms of money, hence it is evident that even the value of human relationships. Even compassion and love are seen as agreements on contract basis.
Finally, The Merchant of Venice is also replete with playing and perception as one of its major themes. In the play, it is shown that appearances can be deceiving. In the three casks trial, the cask that was the most ugly outwardly has the most rewarding interior. This symbolizes the disconnect between appearance on the outside and character on the inside.
This theme is however, somewhat contradictory to the question of perception and prejudice among the characters of the play. Shylock’s famous utterance begs us to question, does a Jew not have eyes, do the minorities not feel pain? He urges the audience to delve further into his nature and motivations rather than ostracizing him as Jewish and as a villain.