Merchant of Venice
The Portia’s Controversy
Perhaps one of William Shakespeare’s most famous comedies, The Merchant of Venice presents the game of three caskets with the high stakes of marriage to the wealthy and beautiful Portia if you choose correctly, or a life of solitude should you fail. The character Bassanio takes on the precarious challenge and after choosing correctly, makes one of the most popular speeches of the play. The speech is widely analyzed for its peculiar language that lends speculation into what Bassanio actually thinks of Portia and of winning the game. After a close reading of the speech, Bassanio’s dialogue can be interpreted to express his fear of Portia’s overwhelming beauty and being married to such an independent, wealthy woman.
Inside the winning lead casket lies a picture of Portia, which Bassanio picks up before beginning his speech. Bassanio announces, “The painter plays the spider, and hath woven / A golden mesh t’untrap the hearts of men / Faster than gnats in cobwebs” (III.ii.121-123). Initially this statement reads as a compliment to Portia’s great beauty, claiming her hair is so alluring it traps the hearts of all men. But trapping the hearts of men has a sinister undertone to it, potentially suggesting Bassanio believes Portia is luring men in with her good looks and dooming them to a life alone when they inevitably fail. This creates a characterization of Portia similar to Medusa as she uses her beauty to ensure these men will never be able to commit themselves to another woman in the future.
As the speech continues, Bassanio remains staring at Portia’s portrait, whether in admiration or in apprehension it is not entirely clear. Bassanio states, “But her eyes— / How could he see to do them? Having made one, / Methinks it should have power to steal both his / And leave itself unfurnished” (III.ii.123-126). Bassanio expects the power of Portia’s eyes to stop the painter from ever being able to finish the portrait, which again prompts the audience to wonder if this statement is intended to be a compliment or an admission of fear. The way Bassanio describes her eyes as having the power to permanently steal the gaze of a man reaffirms the Medusa characterization of Portia. Upon locking eyes with Medusa, any man would be instantly turned to stone and kept from ever returning home. Bassanio presumes Portia’s eyes would have a similar power and expects the painter, upon looking into Portia’s eyes, to never be able to break his stare and finish the portrait. Though it can be argued that the intent of Bassanio’s statement is to compliment the beauty of Portia’s eyes, the tale of Medusa has served to warn against the power that comes with such profound beauty. When Bassanio finally breaks his fixation on the portrait, he begins to compare the real life Portia to the portrait of Portia in the casket. Bassanio pronounces, “Yet look how far / The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow / In underprizing it, so far this shadow / Doth limp behind the substance” (III.ii.126-129). Bassanio announces to Portia that both her portrait and his praises about her beauty do not do justice to the true beauty of the actual Portia. If Bassanio’s previous remarks are actually intended to characterize Portia as Medusa, his statement takes on a very negative meaning. As the picture is only an imitation of Portia, the actual Portia would be all the more frightening to Bassanio. If the portrait has the power to entrap the hearts of men and capture the attention of any man who meets its gaze, what powers do the real Portia have? If her mere image could cause so much fear, Portia in real life would be able to do so much more to any man who crossed her path. After placing the picture of Portia back in the casket, Bassanio finds a note from Portia’s father detailing the nature of his prize. When he finishes reading the declaration of his winnings, Bassanio says, “Like one of two contending in a prize, / That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes, / Hearing applause and universal shout, / Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt / Whether those peals of praise be his or no” (III.ii.141-145). In this statement, the intent behind Bassanio’s speech seems to be solidified. Bassanio has won the casket game and describes feeling like a contestant on a game show wondering whether the applause he hears is for himself or not. This clearly shows that Bassanio’s uncertainty about his fate and the true nature of his prize. Is this prize he has won really a prize? Being married to a woman that can trap the hearts of men with the beauty of her hair and trap a man with the power of her eyes hardly seems like a prize. It is more likely that the applause would be for Portia for trapping another man over applause for Bassanio’s good fortune. At the conclusion of his speech, Bassanio seems to become acutely aware of the destiny he has chosen for himself by participating in the casket game.
Throughout the remainder of The Merchant of Venice, Portia uses her beauty and power to flaunt her intelligence and show her superiority over her new husband. Bassanio’s speech gives the audience a first glimpse into just how powerful Portia truly is and leads them to ponder Bassanio and Portia’s true intentions. Hundreds of years later, critics and readers alike can still only guess at Bassanio’s actual feelings for Portia and the purpose for which Portia disguises herself as a doctor and convinces Bassanio to give up his ring. Regardless of the purpose behind these actions, Bassanio’s speech presents a definite shift in the audience’s perceptions of the characters and the question of why Bassanio reacts so questionably to winning the much sought after prize of the infamous casket game.
Two Cities and Their Contrast Symbolism in Shakespeare’s Play
In “The Merchant of Venice”, William Shakespeare explores the cities of contrast which are Venice and Belmont. These two locations in Italy are so antithetic to each other that even characters’ behaviours fluctuate from city to city because of this disparity between them. This Shakespeare play commences in Venice which is the world of reality. Therefore, the scenes played in the real world focus on wealth, trade, history and urban life. And so, the use of language is more formal in terms of decorum and they use a lot of conceits. Besides, Venice is predominantly male society in opposition to female dominated Belmont. Furthermore, Belmont which is a fantasy place represents ideality. Here, love outweighs other rational stuff such as money. Thus, people use simpler and humorous language, which is more proper for there than trading town, Venice; altogether, there are two locations introduced to the reader in stark opposition by Shakespeare in this play.
To begin with, the play writer uses parallel scenes between Venice and Belmont in “The Merchant of Venice”. One of the biggest differences between these two locations is crash of money and love. Venice is a city which is the centre of trade in Italy. Everything is financial there and this situation even reflects people’s speeches. Act I Scene I starts in the street with the dialogue between Antonio, Salerio and Solanio. In the very first line, Antonio says “I am so sad.” and its reason is that he may lose his ships in the open seas although he thinks that he does not know the reason why he feels mournful. Also, in Act I Scene III, while Bassanio wants loan from Shylock, he tells that if he cannot pay his money back, Antonio will and Bassanio shows Antonio as guarantee for himself so that he cannot pay the money back. And Shylock continues; “He is a good man to have you understand me that he is sufficient.”, which means that if one person has wealth, he is reliable in this trade center. On the other hand, Belmont that Portia lives is a fantasy place which is created by Shakespeare himself. It is a place of poetry, of the sweet music, of spheres, of classical literature. This city is wealthy, as well, but this property is inherited just like Portia’s wealth coming from her father unlike Venice people who merchandise to be rich and to reach their level. Moreover, this city is constructed on love. For instance, in Act II Scene I, Portia tells Prince of Morocco; “In terms of choice I am not solely led / By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes;”. She implies that physical appearance of men is not the only way to her heart, there are other conditions for her in order to get married, too. She looks for the right man and wishes to fall in love with him, yet her father’s will does not let this. She has everything but love because of her father who is still in control in her life. Besides, Bassanio goes to Belmont to solve his financial problems whereas Portia goes to Venice to solve her love issues. Portia likes Bassanio and he does use her feelings to reach money. In Act I Scene I, when he finally commences to say something about Portia after talking a lot, the reader understands that money is the real aim for him. He mentions a girl who is rich and loves him much, which he discovers that from her looks. Bassanio: “In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair and, fairer than the word, Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages.” Furthermore, beautiful language is the symbol of decorum. Venice is a trade centre and these people merchandise to earn their own living; therefore, they should use appropriate language to be in a good situation in public. Also, they try to show their intelligence to one another by using that kind of language. Again, in the first scene, while talking about shipwreck, Salerio even personifies it; “And see my Andrew dock’d in sand, / Vailing high top lower than her ribs, / To kiss her burial”. However, in Belmont, ladies do not have to use that much ornamental language so they prefer simpler and more humorous one. They speak freely however they want without thinking how to be sophisticated. City’s being ideal may be a factor for this, too. To give an example, in Act III Scene IV, Portia says in return to Nerissa’s question; “Fie, what a question’s that, / If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!”. She does not like the question and she adds that if she had a dirty mind, she would understand it like she wants to turn to man for sex. She is not shy about it and says this directly.
Additionally, these two worlds differ from each other in terms of predominant gender roles in them. It can be easily said that Venice is a patriarchal society whereas Belmont is a feminine society. At the same time, this play reveals the gender discrimination in those times. In Act V Scene I, after the scene which rings are exchanged in the court of justice in Act IV, Bassanio and Grationo goes to Portia’s house in Belmont. However, ladies, Portia and Nerissa, blame them; that is why, gentlemen do not take serious their relationships and they lose their rings or give them some other women. Generally, in patriarchal societies, men do not care about such issues, they do commence to talk about how they are completely right and say that women cannot talk to men in this way. Here, gender roles are subverted by Shakespeare and men start to defend themselves. Firstly, Gratiano swears that he did give the ring to the judge’s clerk, then mentions about his physical appearance such as “a youth, a kind of boy, a little scrubbed boy” so that ladies believe in what he says. Likewise, Bassanio defends himself that he lost the ring defending it, as well. Then, he continues; “… What should I say, sweet lady? / I was enforc’d to send it after him, / I was beset with shame and courtesy;” Nevertheless, Venice is a male dominated city and ladies go to the court of justice as by turning to men before that defending scene. Here, Portia challenges traditional gender roles at the same time by acting like a man. Of course, their first aim is not to be recognized by Bassanio and Gratiano in the court and to help them. However, they could have done this without turning into men. Probably, ladies know that no one would listen to them and they cannot defend Bassanio and Gratiano in the court if they were women.
Moreover, Venice and Belmont can be associated with the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because Venice is a trade center, there are many foreign people from different religions in this city and Shylock who is a Jew is one of them. He is supposed to show mercy instead of insisting on getting a pound of flesh from Antonio in order to give him a lesson. Thus, Judaism is associated with the Old Testament in the play because of this strict emphasis on the agreement. On the other hand, ladies in Belmont show more mercy like God’s, just like in the last act which is about the rings of Bassanio and Gratiano, and it is linked to Christianity and the New Testament.
What is more, Venice is a historical place in contrast to Belmont, which is a fairy-tale construct. The reader can see the historical sings in Shylock’s desire for Antonio’s flesh and in the historical anti-Semitism addressed in the play: Shylock is a Jewish man and the reason why he wants Antonio’s flesh that much is that Antonio humiliated him beforehand, and now he wants revenge, he wants his blood. In Act I Scene III, when Shylock sees Antonio for the first time as the guarantor of Bassanio; “I hate him for he is a Christian; But more for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis, and brings down … He hates our sacred nation; and he rails,” However, Shylock cannot obtain what he wants, or Christian blood at the end of the play and he is converted into Christianity. Shakespeare generalizes Shylock as Jewish people and Antonio as Christian people. According to Christian belief, all Jews will be converted into Christianity one day in the future. With the conversion of Shylock, the play writer means all Jews. Nonetheless, the audience does not come across such historical events in Belmont. People are totally free in terms on liberty of speech and thought in this ideal world. Even though Portia has these liberties, as well, she is not completely free even in a fairy place. She must obey his father’s will to marry a man. Susan Oldrive writes this in her article; “Portia cannot even veto her father’s choice of a husband, a right increasingly accepted in Elizabethan times.” Briefly, every city has its own problems regardless of whether it is real or ideal.
Lastly, there is a difference between the possibility of pastoral life regarding the cities. Urban life is dominating in Venice due to trade. There are numerous people from different cultures and they are like stranger to one another in urban areas. People do not have much with each other as long as it is not necessary. It is seen in the relationships between Bassanio and Shylock, and Antonio and Shylock. Bassanio goes to Shylock to borrow money, all his target is to have money so as to reach Portia, not to become friend or something else. And, Shylock knows Antonio as a man who lends money to people carelessly and hates Jewish. Also, their use of language is appropriate for this urban life, as well. However, rural life turns to scale in Belmont. Generally, people are inherited in rural areas just like Portia who is rich thanks to her father’s legacy. Besides, there is not that much cultural diversity on the contrary of Venice. The reader does not see this in the Belmont scenes, either. In addition to them, Shepherds and peaceful atmosphere of Belmont could be good examples for this rural life. Shepherds which symbolize Jesus Christ are again about religion. For this reason, regarded as a saint, Portia can be associated with shepherd, too. In the sense of peaceful place, there is hardly ever trouble in this place. Commonly, all the arguments happen in Venice, not in Belmont.
Venice and Belmont are two locations in Italy that William Shakespeare uses as the scenes in “The Merchant of Venice”. These two places are opposed to each other. First of all, Venice embodies reality; therefore, wealth that they think everything financially, mercantilism which is their way of earning money, history, urban life and the New Testament are focused in Venice city. On the contrary, Belmont symbolizes ideality; thus, love which is the most crucial matter for them and the New Testament are given there. Belmont citizens are more easy-going unlike Venice’s. These characteristics redound up the language that people use. In Venice, people use financial and more beautiful language which is necessary especially for mercantilism while in Belmont, people choose to use more plain and free language. At the same time, these characteristics of the cities are identified with culture that includes language, as well, and William Shakespeare compares and contrasts these two different worlds successfully in “The Merchant of Venice.”
D. J. Snider. “The Merchant of Venice (conclusion).” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 4, pg. 361-375. Lehnhof, Kent. “The Merchant of Venice: Venice and Belmont.” Chapman University Symposium. April 19, 2016. Magri, Neomi. “Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and thereabouts.” De Vere Society Newsletter. June 2003. Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, A Symposium Issue on “The Merchant of Venice” (Spring, 1993) Pg. 87-105. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 7, Line 1.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 19, Lines 13-14.  Magri, Neomi. “Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and thereabouts.” De Vere Society Newsletter. June 2003.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 26, Lines 13-14.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 12, Lines 161-164.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 8, Lines 27-28.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 74, Lines 79-80. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 104 Lines 161-162.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 106, Lines 215-217.  Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 20, Lines 37-43.  Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, A Symposium Issue on “The Merchant of Venice” (Spring, 1993) Pg. 90.
The Concept Love and Its Depiction
William Shakespeare’s The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice depicts an odd juxtaposition of love in the romantic sense with wealth in the monetary sense. The characters in the text acknowledge both senses as valuable virtues, yet comparatively, said virtues are measured against each other to determine (or at least broach the question of) which is more valuable. Arguably the most significant quagmire in measuring these virtues against one another is the credibility of love’s representations in the text, and with regard to specifically Antonio, a merchant of Venice, and Bassanio, his closest friend, the nature of their kinship as compared to Bassanio’s interactions with the heiress, Portia, detracts from the tenability of what characters claim love to be. The following ultimately argues that Shakespeare deliberately or inadvertently depicted a common aspect of male personas that was, in his time, completely unaffected by contemporary ideas of sexual orientation but would presently be viewed as homosocial behavior; consequently, relations between a man and a woman in Shakespeare’s time are depicted as mere tradition and irrelevant to homosocial intimacy.
The element of the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio that impinges upon the credibility of Bassanio’s alleged love for Portia is the level of intimacy Bassanio shares with Antonio. The text provides ample examples of this intimacy, and frequently, it is represented as a closeness that exceeds the intimacies of any other relationship in the play. These examples begin as early as the first scene of the first act wherein Antonio, Solanio, and Salerio converse with one another. Antonio admits to being sad without knowing the cause of his sadness, and his two friends assure him that his sadness stems from the great risk of his current investments and that this is a natural proclivity for any merchant risking as much as Antonio is risking; nevertheless, Antonio explains that their assumptions are inaccurate. In response, they presume that the only other logical conclusion is love.
When Antonio says his merchandise at sea is not the cause of his sadness, Solanio suggests, “Why then, you are in love”; to which Antonio vaguely replies, “Fie, fie,” which is too abstruse to be concretely interpreted for any single emotion (1.1.46-7). One can argue based on the connotation of the archaic interjection, fie, that Antonio is utterly disgusted with the, perhaps, insipid idea that love is the cause of his sadness, but Shakespeare’s punctuation does not necessarily support that interpretation. The comma after the first utterance and period after the second almost suggest that Antonio’s line could just as easily be interpreted as indifference toward the idea. This is the first line to exemplify the ambiguity of love’s representation in the text, and the rest of the play informs this early conversation in a way that suggests Antonio protests too much, so to speak, and is, in fact, in love.
Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Graziano join the conversation, entering the scene, and Solanio says, “Here comes Bassanio, your most noble kinsman, / Graziano, and Lorenzo. Fare ye well. / We leave you now with better company” (1.1.57-9). On one hand, Solanio seems to simply be cordially apathetic to Antonio’s sadness because, though they are friends, he is only willing to invest so much into Antonio’s discomfort at the moment. On the other hand, Solanio’s words are not entirely to be taken lightly because he singles Bassanio out and establishes early that there must be an intimacy between Antonio and Bassanio that is lacking in the other relationships represented in the scene.
Later in the same scene, Antonio and Bassanio are left alone, and Antonio chooses this time to say, “Well, tell me now what lady is the same / To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage, / That you today promised to tell me of,” indicating that Antonio has known since prior to this scene that Bassanio is pursuing a woman, which qualifies this (though proving nothing in and of itself) as a possible cause for the aforementioned sadness (1.1.119-21). Bassanio’s response is pregnant with suggestive implications for a myriad of reasons. First, it is important to note that Antonio has only asked that Bassanio identify the woman he is courting, and the significance of this is that Bassanio begins his response with explanation as to why he pursues the woman in question at all rather than answering the question. This type of response suggests that Bassanio feels the need to justify his pursuit to Antonio as though it is not simply enough that Bassanio is a man who has found a woman worth courting.
Answering the quoted question, Bassanio reminds Antonio that he has accumulated significant debt by living beyond his means, and he even admits that his debt has not affected his inclination to live exuberantly. “But my chief care,” he says, “Is to come fairly off from the great debts / Wherein my time, something too prodigal, / Hath left me gaged” (1.1.127-30). Bassanio’s primary concern is escaping his debt. Then, curiously, Bassanio appears to be preoccupied with reassuring Antonio of their own love, still within his initial response to Antonio’s question about the yet unnamed lady Bassanio wishes to pursue. “To you, Antonio, / I owe the most in money and in love,” Bassanio says, maintaining the juxtaposition of money and love (1.1.130-1). In the context of the woman Bassanio intends to pursue, he finds it pertinent to explain that his love for Antonio is superior to any other.
Antonio answers that, if Bassanio’s plan to relieve his debt is viable, “be assured / My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (1.1.138-9). Antonio’s denotations simply state that he will do whatever Bassanio needs him to do for Bassanio’s sake, but formally, the syntax creates an almost homoerotic connotation, specifically in choosing the following words: person, extremest, lie, and unlocked. The term, person, very likely is chosen for its sense, body, especially because this also foreshadows the reality that, later in the play, a pound of Antonio’s own flesh is owed to Shylock for a loan Antonio acquired on Bassanio’s behalf. In other words, Antonio does, in fact, spend his money (purse), body (person), and life (extremest means) for Bassanio. The idea that Antonio’s body lies unlocked to Bassanio, though, is easily interpreted a sexual double entendre, especially given Shakespeare’s affinity for wordplay. Much later in the same conversation, Bassanio finally answers Antonio’s question as late as line 161. He begins, “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues” (1.1.161-3). Bassanio substantiates his discursive preamble about his financial plight and the need to live extravagantly in finally answering Antonio’s question with the solution to his own problem. The first and presumably most important feature about Portia, whose name finally comes three lines later, is that she is a wealthy heiress, and Bassanio has maneuvered this conversation in such a way that suggests he believes Antonio needs to and will see the pragmatism of his plan. In fact, his speech privileges money over all, and in terms of sequence, what follow are complexion, virtue, and hair respectively. Bassanio and Antonio have a love that is so intimate that it seems to the modern reader to be romantic in that Bassanio feels compelled to explain his reasoning for romantically involving himself with someone else, and it is telling that a simple attraction to a woman does not suffice in explaining his actions.
In the second scene of the third act, Portia is prolix in expressing her hopes that, in essence, the love between she and Bassanio is real. Speaking of allowing Bassanio to choose between the three chests, she says she wishes he would not choose yet because she is scared of the idea that he may choose incorrectly and forever be without her, but then, she says, “There’s something tells me—but it is not love— / I would not lose you; and you know yourself / Hate counsels not in such a quality” (3.2.4-6). She wants to give Bassanio clues, unfairly favoring him, but she resists so as not to be any less virtuous.
Portia continues, “Beshrew your eyes, / They have o’erlooked me and divided me. / One half of me is yours, the other half yours—” (3.2.14-6). Here, Portia’s syntax is pregnant with meaning as well because it is arguably the greatest evidence that Shakespeare has, in writing this play, tapped into an incredible insight into a social constructivist perspective of gender as well as a comparison of homosocial interactions with heterosocial interactions. She uses the word, overlooked, which Stephen Greenblatt equates with the word, bewitched, in this context, and in that sense, Portia is saying that Bassanio’s eyes have enchanted or delighted her, perhaps even going so far as to say they have cast a metaphorical spell on her. This introduces a concept contemporary theory calls the male gaze, and it suggests that, if Shakespeare could have been insightful enough to depict the male gaze (albeit without contemporary terminology), his insight could just as easily have identified in the men of his reality this then unquantifiable aspect of the male persona that binds men to each other so closely that they prefer their heterosocial bonds to any relationship they could form with a woman; moreover, without the modern concepts of sexual orientation, Shakespeare would not have considered this to be deviant or unnatural behavior.
Portia’s words take on greater meaning when the metaphorical spell is examined more closely for what it could be, relative to contemporary literary theories that, of course, were not even being discussed in the sixteenth century when Shakespeare was writing. It would seem unsubstantiated to suggest that Shakespeare tapped into this insight of his own accord long before the theories were officially published were it not for the consistencies throughout the play to validate the idea that Shakespeare may have, indeed, lacked only the modern terminology to describe contemporary concepts that he contemplated on his own. For Portia to say that Bassanio’s eyes have cast this spell over her and, in turn, divided her strongly alludes to the theoretical concept in feminist studies of experience (the Lacanian variant on feminist literary criticism) called the male gaze, which was first introduced in Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in 1975. Mulvey argues: Pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (Mulvey 808-9). Mulvey’s theory asserts that Bassanio’s eyes do not merely see Portia but also superimpose upon her appearance a “to-be-looked-at-ness” in the sense that she is passive and devoid of desire as well as an objectification in the sense that she is only a signifier for male desire. Portia is (women are) divided into these two incredibly narrow, patriarchal representations, and as Portia goes on to say, both halves are for Bassanio (men).
Shakespeare even incorporates Mulvey’s male/active female/passive binaries, using them to characterize Portia inasmuch as only men are active in the play. “An active/passive heterosexual division of labour has similarly controlled narrative structure. […] Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen” (Mulvey 810). Portia remains at home for the majority of the play, and her suitors come to her; moreover, everyone acknowledges the rules her father established for winning her hand, including Portia herself, despite the fact that he is dead and unable to enforce these rules, suggesting that, even in death, men are at the center of all action, and a father’s law is infallible. She exhibits trust in the heteronormative social codes her father taught her regarding how her hand is to be given, which represents her adherence to Lacan’s concept of the Law of the Father “because it is the father who enforces cultural norms and laws” (Dobie 71). By this point, Shakespeare is employing the multifaceted concept of the male gaze while maintaining consistency with contemporary, psychoanalytic literary criticism, and his adherence to these concepts both affirms the theories themselves and indicates a level of insight on Shakespeare’s part that simply carried an in-depth understanding of people, which is further supported by the popularity of his plays. It stands to reason that Shakespeare could only write so affectively if he genuinely had an abnormal gift for understanding people.
In an alternate articulation of this concept of the male perspective dividing women against their will and, thus, halving their perceived value in both sexuality and humanity, Mulvey draws conclusions about earlier sections of her article, explaining how it is women in film are subjected to this division of self. She characterizes it in terms of cinema and uses a Freudian approach (as opposed to the Lacanian approach of the previous quote), but most of the aspects of cinema she references also pertain to any artistic rendering of man or woman as he or she relates to his or her world: Sections II. A and B have set out two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination of the sexual instincts, the second of ego libido. This dichotomy was crucial for Freud. […] Both are formative structures, mechanisms not meaning. In themselves they have no signification, they have to be attached to an idealisation [sic]. (Mulvey 808)
The Freudian significance of this is that, on one hand, the male perspective in general (not just Bassanio’s) objectifies Portia as merely an item of aesthetic value to be viewed and to stimulate libido, “the source of our psychic energy and our psychosexual desires” (Dobie 58). On the other hand, both the male and female contingents of the audience viewing Shakespeare’s play identify with Bassanio, idealizing his interaction with Portia by critiquing how worthy he is of possessing her (on the merits of his masculinity or, more appropriately, his adherence to the male role) and how worthy she is of being possessed. This means that the character, Bassanio, assumes the role of the audience’s ideal self (ego) whereas the female character, Portia, assumes the role of the ideal object of “displacement—moving one’s feeling for a particular person to an object related to him or her, much as metonymy uses the name of one object to replace another with which it is closely related or of which it is a part” (Dobie 60). In none of this is Portia representative of a “self.” She does not serve the audience’s ego; rather, the male gaze views her as a sexual object and simultaneously a part of Lacan’s Other—“those remaining elements that exist outside the self” (Dobie 71).
Bassanio finally says, “Let me choose, / For as I am, I live upon the rack,” which refers to an instrument used to torture traitors; he likens the delay to such torture (3.2.24-5). Portia carries the metaphor further, asking that Bassanio “confess / what treason there is mingled with [his] love” (3.2.26-7). The conversation grows increasingly ambiguous, as does the nature of Bassanio’s love, because he answers, “None but that ugly treason of mistrust / Which makes me fear th’enjoying of my love” (3.2.28-9). Greenblatt qualifies the word, mistrust, likening it to the word, uncertainty, so Bassanio’s uncertainty could be in regard to which chest to choose, fearing or doubting the verity of his love since Portia suggests that, if his love is true, he will choose correctly; however, he could just as easily be alluding to Antonio as his most profound love and, thus, to the treason of the love he has professed to Portia. Shakespeare writes Portia’s part in the play in such a way that he seems cognizant of the concept of the male gaze, which makes it that much more believable that he, indeed, simply wrote with a unique understanding of the human psyche. None of this is to say that Shakespeare deliberately depicts gay lovers torn apart by circumstance; rather, he depicted an aspect of homosocial behavior and interaction that he recognized in his time—a time in which people were not particularly aware of what modern socialites call homosexuality—as a level of intimacy between men that could not be compared to the relatively inferior intimacy a man has with a woman; therefore, what signifies homosexuality in the twenty-first century did not in the sixteenth and could long ago be deemed natural in the minds of men who saw homosexuality as something so unnatural that they presumed their intimate feelings for male friends to be little more than great friendship.
The nature of Antonio’s inexplicable sadness juxtaposed with Bassanio’s pursuit of a woman as well as the suggestive uncertainties of Bassanio’s words to Portia even imply that there may have, at some time, been a closeness between Bassanio and Antonio that was of such intimacy that they saw no reason for female companionship. They privilege their own relationship over all else, which suggests that the discourse of Shakespeare’s time was nearly devoid of the concept of homosexuality, to some extent, inclusive of the notion that women were simply functional like property, serving sexual and aesthetic needs only. After all, if a man does not perceive women as his intellectual equal, then someone else must satiate his yearn for a kindred spirit of equal value.
With all these contentions in mind, it is logical to consider that Shakespeare, ingeniously knowing human personalities so thoroughly, was able to recognize, capture, and perhaps exaggerate in The Merchant of Venice this aspect of the male perspective that privileged men’s homosocial relationships over any other relationships. If only the second scene of Act III exhibited any characteristics of the male gaze, then perhaps it could be said that it was an isolated occurrence in the text, not indicative of any special insight on Shakespeare’s part; however, Portia’s character is fluidly depicted under this lens throughout the play. After Bassanio has chosen correctly and won her hand, Portia says in complete accordance with the conclusions drawn earlier from Mulvey’s assessment of the male gaze: You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, Such as I am. Though for myself alone I would not be ambitious in my wish To wish myself much better, yet for you I would be trebled twenty times myself, A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich, That only to stand high in your account I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, Exceed account. (3.2.149-57) Portia’s desires, whatever they may be, are not acknowledged in the text with the exception of the one desire that is relevant to Bassanio, and that is precisely how the male gaze operates. All that matters about Portia in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience are the attributes that concern Bassanio—her “to-be-looked-at-ness,” her stagnant (inanimate) quality as a possession, and additionally for Bassanio’s unique circumstance, her inherited fortune.
Proving Shakespeare’s adherence to the concept of the male gaze serves the purpose of exhibiting that such insight could also understand people in such depth that he was aware of that homosocial element of men’s relationships that, for some, would be said in the twenty-first century to encroach upon their perceived heterosexuality. Shakespeare highlights this extent of those homosocial relationships that some men reached that was admirable for the depth of its love and intimacy and profoundly progressive in that it was not faulted for affecting the public perception of a man’s gender. The nature of Antonio’s and Bassanio’s relationship was common knowledge, as Solanio and Salerio indicate, and neither Antonio nor Bassanio were deemed any less masculine in the eyes of any of the text’s characters, including Portia, which is significant in the final acts of the play. As such, to the same end of exhibiting Shakespeare’s insight, it is pertinent to examine Portia’s short speech at the end of Act III, scene four, explaining a plan to Nerissa. She explains that they will sneak up on their husbands, and Nerissa asks if they will allow themselves to be seen. In response, Portia:
They shall, Nerissa, but in such a habit
That they shall think we are accomplished
With that we lack. I’ll hold thee any wager,
When we are both accoutered like young men
I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two,
And wear my dagger with the braver grace,
And speak between the change of man and boy
With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps
Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies
How honourable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died.
I could not do withal. Then I’ll repent,
And wish for all that that I had not killed them;
And twenty of these puny lies I’ll tell,
That men shall swear I have discontinued school
Avobe a twelvemonth. I have within my mind
A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks
Which I will practise [sic]. (3.4.60-78)
The only time Portia betrays the active/passive binary is when she also betrays the male/female binary. Shakespeare depicts her passivity throughout the first half of the play, and when she becomes an active character, it is by way of impersonating a man. In composing the plot, it was not strictly necessary for Shakespeare to involve Portia in Bassanio’s affairs with such an active role beyond Bassanio winning her hand, yet he chooses to add her to the center of the action in the play; furthermore in so doing, he elects to have her impersonate a man so that her presence at the center of the action is not conspicuous, which indicates that, even without having been exposed to the concept of the male gaze, he was cognizant of both men and women viewed an idealized man, an idealized woman, and an idealized relationship. He was aware of how to appeal to the ego, the I-self, of his audience by giving them all the opportunity for “identification of the ego with the object on the [stage]” (Mulvey 808). After dividing Portia according to sexual instincts (one half) and ego libido (another half), Shakespeare uses the character in a way that showcases his understanding of male and female personas.
Theories like psychoanalytic literary criticism and the male gaze, though they are convoluted, would be disproven if literature that predated them never upheld them. They are valid as observable features of literature because they do, in fact, appear in literature naturally; writers are predisposed toward certain patterns that these theories expose. Shakespeare had to be keenly observant of the nature of people in general to understand his audiences well enough to write such successfully evocative plays. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that his depiction of Antonio and Bassanio may have been intended to capture the element of homosocial friendship that, as he might have plainly described it, curiously mirrored (or even exceeded) in the intensity of its intimacy what husbands felt for their wives and, thus, imposed upon love what modern readers consider to be ambiguity.
The Racial Question in The Merchant of Venice based on The Prince of Morocco
Art reflects the social context it was created in, and so can be useful in determining social opinions of different time periods. Live theatre is no different, and the way minority characters were written and portrayed on stage can be valuable to understanding how they were viewed by the larger majority at the time the play was produced. Their outward physical appearance is especially important, as their clothing and makeup determines the initial thoughts of the audience: whether they come on stage in blackface or covered head to toe in cloth, their characterization is significantly impacted. In many examples of portrayals of people of color, the characters themselves acknowledge their minority status at great length, and the rest of their actions in relation to the plot are largely related to that subject position. While the most obvious outsider in The Merchant of Venice is Shylock, the Jewish moneylender vilified for his insistence on the bodily harm of a man in his debt, a character with a much smaller role operated in a sphere similar to his. Named only as the prince of Morocco, this man sought Portia’s hand in marriage: a wealthy white woman who would be desirable for the purpose of increasing both wealth and class status. His presence in the play is interesting, as he functions as a parallel to Shylock at times while asking Portia to view him just as she would see anyone of her own race, as well as an example of how to view Shylock in relation to the white characters as the play progresses.
In his initial speech to Portia, the prince takes a somewhat contradictory approach to winning her favor. His first words to her anticipate that she already is against him because of his race: “mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1), although he seems to argue that his skin tone does not define him while also praising it. He bears “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.1.2), and the word choice of ‘livery’ an interesting one. Literally defined as “clothing or uniform” (OED), it suggests that his skin is a kind of clothing, and so nonpermanent. Because it is not permanent, it may not be essential to his character, creating the possibility that Portia need not judge him by his skin tone at all. Additionally, the sun is described as burnished, or “having the appearance of polished metal”. This connotes an idea of wealth and status, as it takes care for metal to be polished enough to shine; it also adds a sense of beauty, as metal is more attractive when it shines. His characterization of his complexion is so odd because he speaks positively of it while simultaneously distancing himself from it.
While there were different ideas of what caused skin tone in the 1600s, the prince apparently subscribed to the concept that race was based upon climate, as he calls himself a ‘neighbor’ of the sun before asking to be compared to a person from so far north that “Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles” as a means of requesting a person who is extraordinarily light skinned. This belief is fitting when compared to his earlier characterization of his skin tone as clothing, because if skin tone is based on the climate a person lives in, moving to another climate could change that skin tone— making it nonpermanent. This furthers the idea that the prince can escape the negative traits he assumes Portia sees in his skin color. Additionally, the contest he suggests involves the not his skin color but the color of his blood, placing importance on his internal characteristics rather that internal. Specifically he calls for the judgement of the redness of his blood, a scale by which “virality […] and strength” (OED) can be measured. He uses this new aspect of his body in order to assert his masculinity, as well as his fitness for marriage to Portia: if he is virile and strong, he is able to function both as a mate as well as a protector.
Crucially, the person the prince asks to be compared against is described to be the “fairest creature northward born” (2.2.4), as opposed to asking for someone who was simply paler than he was. The prince asks specifically for the person who as white as is possible, as fits one definition of fair, but invites a number of other traits in using that word specifically. To be fair is also to be “beautiful [and] agreeable”, as well as “admirable [and] noble” (OED). The prince’s use of a word associated with such positive traits creates a stronger dichotomy between himself and his hypothetical competitor, as in his choice to elevate the fairer man as someone to compete with is to indirectly agree that a darker skin tone carries the opposite traits. If he is asking for the most worthy competitor to be compared to, and that competitor is beautiful and noble because of his fair skin tone, the prince agrees that the traits associated with blackness are not beauty and nobility but some form of their opposites. The prince again works to distance himself from his blackness and present himself as worthy of marrying Portia.
However, immediately after the prince asks for the opportunity to separate himself from his skin tone and be judged by an internal trait, he brags about the behavior that his skin has excited in others: it “hath fear’d the valiant” (2.1.9) and has been loved by “the best-regarded virgins of our clime” (2.1.10). Through these new claims, the prince presents his skin tone as something decidedly desirable— and again as both a mate and a protector. While his appearance strikes fear in his opponents, it seems that it is fear stemming from the prince’s strength rather than his skin tone itself being scary, as he makes a point to describe the frightened people as characteristically valiant. The argument he presents with the virgins of his climate can function in two ways: if he is being modest, the fact that the best women his region had to offer desired him makes him at least adequate for Portia; if he is being cocky, his experience could function as a way to show off to Portia the benefits of what she could gain by marrying him. Regardless, the prince defends his skin tone and presents arguments that counter possible claims that he would be unfit to be Portia’s husband. He’s also appealing directly to Portia here, an extension of his original request for her not to “mislike” him on the basis of his skin tone before he has a chance to elaborate on his character.
The prince’s last appeal, however, seem a way to cut the tie between himself and his race almost entirely. While he’s expressed the positives of his body and what he has been able to achieve with it, he tells Portia that he “would not change this hue / except to steal [her] thoughts” (2.1.11-12). This last statement manages to combine the sentiment of his speech above, as contradictory as it was: he is proud of his skin tone and does not see it negatively, but understands that Portia is likely to and so is willing to give up his own identity to make himself more appealing to her. This statement does not seem to be hypothetical, rather, the prince seems willing to change himself if it will gain him Portia’s hand. Again, and oddly to the modern reader, the prince refers to race as a non-permanent trait— and while he does not propose a precise method by which he would make himself lighter skinned, he does not present it as an insurmountable obstacle. This viewpoint can be reflected in the larger context of how he values his outward appearance in relation to his internal character traits.
While the prince describes his skin with words connected to wealth and status, he ultimately requests that Portia look further than his most basic appearance. The test of his character is a test of his blood, something she would be unable to see simply by observing the color of his skin. The presence of a proposed act of violence, although small, speaks to the motivation he has to prove to Portia that he is worthy to marry her. Additionally, his pointed comparison to himself to someone that is fairer reveals his own awareness of the way his race is perceived when compared to a white person. He knows that Portia is viewing him from a lower starting point than a white person, and to him, a test of blood is the easiest way for him to level the playing field and hopefully have Portia judge him separately from his Moorish status and the connotations of the identity. Beyond that, he is willing to give up his racial identity entire for her, in the hopes that it will make her desire him. The final effect is somewhat confusing, as he offers to discard the very aspect of himself he praised only lines before, but ultimately adds to the sense of his dedication in wooing her.
Ultimately, his place as Portia’s husband is not up to her, but dependent on the box he chooses out of a set of three: lead, silver, and gold. Each comes with a riddle, and the box each suitor chooses is understood to relate to their character. Morocco surveys them all, and chooses the golden box inscribed with “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (2.7.37). He reasons that Portia, in all her beauty and status, must be what all men want and so his choice is a rational one. More telling, however, is his thought process while deciding against the other two boxes: he reasons that a picture of a person as beautiful as Portia could not be contained in a box of anything less than gold, as it must be fitting of her outward appearance. This reasoning is so confusing because it goes against his driving claim of his earlier monologue that outward appearance is not the determining factor of value, yet he immediately reaches for the prettiest box he finds and treats its inscription as an afterthought to support his choice. He seemingly spins his perspective on perception, but in truth that spin may have more to do with the difference in his race as related to Portia.
In his earlier speech, the prince makes it clear he is aware of the negative traits associated with his skin tone, and thus encourages Portia to value his internal rather than his external traits. However, his need to wave away his race at all is likely the reason he accepts Portia at face value and chooses the golden box. While he is black and feels he must make up for that ‘disadvantage’, Portia starts from the position of a wealthy, attractive white woman— and so there is no need for him to make a special effort to look past the surface. Her appearance does not have an immediate negative effect on the perception of her as a person, and so he does not need to wonder at her internal traits. Unlike himself, Portia is more than able to get by on the privilege of her visible whiteness. For her, there is no need to look deeper, as what is on the outside is already socially acceptable.
Looking at the prince of Morocco through this lens, it is easier to see how he functions as a character in the relation to the rest of the play. As another version of the outsider, and thus comparable to Shylock, he serves as a way to view the rest of the characters along this same dichotomy. The prince and Shylock both must take great pains to explain their actions and make their internal motivations blunt to the white Christians in the play, who operate from a privileged position which assumes that they are already moral and just in their actions. While the ‘fairest’ in the play can get by on their outward appearance and the inherent assumption of goodness those like them connect to it, the minority characters must work harder to reveal their internal traits, as their outward appearance does not suffice to redeem them.
Analysis of Shylock’s Personality as Depicted by William Shakespeare in His Play, The Merchant of Venice
Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare in the 1600s. The Merchant of Venice is a play that focuses on love and revenge in a world of religious intolerance between the Christian and Jewish population of Venice. The Merchant of Venice contains some of Shakespeare’s most memorable and complex characters. The main characters in this play are: Antonio, a merchant of Venice. Bassanio, a young gentleman of Venice who is friends with Antonio, Portia, the wealthy heiress of Belmont who is looking for a husband, and Shylock, who is the Jewish moneylender in Venice. It is set in Venice and Portia’s home in Belmont, the play moves from a fraught mix of cosmopolitan bustle and casual anti-semitism to a fairytale land of riddles, music and poetry. Shakespeare uses a wide range of literary devices to emphasize the key theme, Justice and Mercy. This IOC will cover one of the most famous speeches from the play, Shylock’s monologue. In this speech, Shylock, a Jewish merchant, is talking to two Christian men called Salerio and Solanio. They are teasing him because his beloved daughter Jessica has run away from home with a Christian man. Solerio and Solanio are friends of Antonio who has borrowed money from Shylock. Shylock has made Antonio sign a contract, which states that if he cannot repay the loan he will instead repay Shylock with a pound of his own flesh.
Shylock’s monologue confuses the audience as he might be represented as whether he is a good Jew or a money and flesh hunger merchant. To Shylock, one pound of Antonio’s flesh is not only a way of revenge to Antonio but also a bait to revenge to Venice’s Christian society. That is why Shylock said “To bait fish withal.” The revenge is to destroy Christian’s racism on Jewish. As this monologue is from a first person point of view, it will be more convincing to the audience as why Antonio and Shylock despise each other, as they have religious and nationality differences. While Shylock is saying his monologue we get the idea that the Christians have treated him without respect previously, as he is the only Jew in the play, but treated the worst by Antonio.
During the speech, Shylock makes it clear that his hatred is born of what he sees as Antonio’s bullying behaviour. Shylock goes on to point out that Christians and Jews are unified by their common humanity, despite their different religions. Shylock’s concern is with body, not with the soul; Christians and Jews both have flesh, eyes, etc., and both will die if poisoned, but the distinction characteristics between them are the religion, where this is a Jew, and that is a Christian. However, Shylock’s greed and lust for money are paralleled by his cruelty that he seeks for having mercy from Christians, but at the same time he seeks for revenge.
Shylock effectively uses ethos, pathos, and logos in the speech with parallelism structures and rhetorical questions. The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided the means of persuasion, appeals, into three categories–Ethos, Pathos, Logos. Ethos is an appeal to the authority or honesty of the presenter, pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotion, and logos is logical appeal or the simulation of it, and the term logic is derived from it.
Shylock speaks in prose, and uses many literary devices for example; starting from Line 43 to Line 55 rhetorical questions are used. The words disgraced, laughed, mocked, scorned, thwarted, cooled and heated makes it seem like Shylock is directly attacking and addressing the audience as it makes it seem like he is playing on emotions, which will evoke pathos, therefore impacting the audience to feel sympathetic towards Shylock.
The Christians of the play universally assumed that they’re a nobler species than Jews, but Shylock insisted that they’re no more pure than Jews and Jews no less human than Christians in the lines that has been started with rhetorical questions “Hath not a Jew eyes?”. In the lines “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”, Shylock uses pathos to humanly appeal to Christians, but to prejudiced Christians, his appeal was just an excuse to hide Jew’s characteristics. Christian has no little pathos to Shylock, so he changed his strategy from pathos to logos on the line “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” He focused on logos to show causes and effects of the actions. Then, after the line, Shylock changed his strategy to strengthen his speech to justify his actions, which mentally affects the audience.
He has justified his action in the line “If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” and reveals Christians’ duplicity on moral standards on the lines “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?” In these three lines, Shylock focuses on ethos, by justifying his action and revealing Christians’ duplicity on moral standards to achieve his goal; trying to destroy Christian’s racism on Jewish.
Critical Essay: Merchant of Venice
Merchant of Venice is a play in the 16th century that was written by the infamous writer, Shakespeare. Just like many other of his play, the story is The Merchant of Venice is classified as a tragicomedy, because it shares features in common with comedies but also contains the kind of dark elements we typically find in tragedies. The story was written in poets. Shakespeare has always made sure that he impresses his audiences, therefore the theme that Merchant of Venice portrays is in favor of the Christians whose power were over the Jews at the time. The play shows how both religions conceived in the old time.
Bassanio needs three thousand ducats in order to travel to Belmont in hopes of wooing Portia. His close friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant, asks a Jewish moneylender named Shylock to loan him the money to give to Bassanio because his wealth is invested in ships that are currently out at sea. Shylock agrees to loan Antonio the money under the condition that if he forfeits on the loan, Antonio will owe him a pound of his flesh. After Bassanio successfully woos Portia, he learns that Antonio’s ships have wrecked and he will be forced to give a pound of flesh to Shylock. Bassanio then has to go to Venice, Portia follows him disguised as a young doctor named Balthazar and presents a clever argument that prevents Shylock from exacting the pound of flesh. At the end of the play, half of Shylock’s fortune is taken and he must convert to Christianity.
There is a method to the madness that is Shakespearean Comedy. Every Comedy has an outline and “The Merchant of Venice” is no exception. This highly social dilemma centers on the pursuit of love and money and concludes with the joyous acquisition of just that. But while beautiful people pursue beautiful things, something dark is going on beneath and made light of through Shakespearean wit. The sources of human identity are probed as a Venetian moneylender transforms into the monster he is pressured to become and a beautiful heiress mutates mercy and justice into wicked trickery. Portia’s plea for mercy in the fourth act is the most poetic and moving speech in all of this play and it is in comparison to this oration that the disturbing undertones of “The Merchant of Venice” become the most apparent.
The Caskets and Their Role in Plot’s Construction
In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ written by William Shakespeare there are three caskets: of Gold, Silver and Lead. Introducing them the caskets play a powerful dramatic significance to the play as it helps justify the mindset of her suitors which come ‘from the four corners of the earth. They come to kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint. Each casket is known for introducing a moral lesson to the one who opens it, interestingly each of the caskets have a message held externally and internally to support their lesson.
In Act Two Scene Seven the Prince of Morocco arrives to have a try at his luck at achieving Portia as a wife. The Prince deliberated to himself what casket to choose. Having glanced at the Golden Casket he read that it promises, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” Thinking to himself that lead be to uncharacteristic for the fair Portia (‘Is’t like that lead contains her? ‘Twere damnation to think so base a thought. It were too gross to rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave.’) and that silver does not compete with gold in terms of value (‘Or shall I think in silver she’s immured, being ten times undervalued to tried gold?’) he chose the Golden Casket. This event is made to be so dramatic as it shows that love cannot be bought and that you ‘should never judge a book by its cover’ as what may be inside may be of equal or opposite value to of the outside. This idea is developed as The Prince of Morocco picks the Golden Casket he realizes that he chose wrong as when he opens and sees no portrait indicating Portia as his prize is but a skull with a scroll in its eye socket and on the scroll states the most important quote to symbolize the main idea, ‘all that glisters is not gold,’ showing that nothing that sparkles from blinded vision or from a distance must be something of value, something that may be beautiful on the outside but may be corrupted on the inside.
Furthermore in Act Two Scene Nine the Prince of Arragon arrives too to try his luck at Portia’s hand in marriage. He alike to the Prince of Morocco deliberates carefully to himself reading aloud the inscriptions to dramatically emphasize the thought that each suitor must endure. He then proceeds to choose the Silver Casket inscribed with, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Thinking with an egocentric characteristic that he deserves the very best (“I will assume desert”) he opens the Silver Casket finding a blinking idiot and by that he states at his leave that once he had only but one idiot head but now two. By this encounter there is a further declaration of how the three caskets play an important role to the drama of the play, in which the Silver Casket shows that when pursuing the love of another one must not think greatly of one’s needs and profits for personal gain. Interestingly The Prince of Morocco by his gamble lost a right and the right being to pursue a woman for marital ambitions ever gain.
Lastly in Act Three Scene Two Bassanio financially helped by Antonio arrives at Portia’s house to choose from the caskets. He too debates and induces dramatic effect on the play when he states in connection to the Gold Casket that you cannot judge something from its aesthetic appearance and in addition gives an example of a court (too inducing a foreshadowing of Antonio’s trial) when one can ‘deliver a false plea and hide its wickedness with a pretty voice’ (‘The world is still deceived with ornament. In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt. But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, obscures the show of evil?’). Although crediting this idea, nevertheless he blatantly and carelessly picks a casket, which he realizes to have chosen correctly being the Lead Casket inscribed with, ‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath’. By this an idea of hypocrisy is introduced in which a person may go back completely on his ideals if he is in pursuit of something is of great gain to himself, as in Bassanio’s search of riches masked or ‘covered’ by the love that he ostents to have for Portia.
These portrayals create further drama in the play, showing that everyone has a weakness. Overall the caskets have played a great lesson by foreshadowing events, showing the mindset of people, and allowing us to realize the human error idea of the play. Achieving these Shakespeare has allowed himself to develop the story further and also by drama to attract the audience’s attention by stating that everyone makes mistakes no matter how high of character one is.
A study of the theme of mercy in The Merchant of Venice
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Here in Canada, we do not have the death penalty as punishment. Our judicial system shows mercy even to the worst of criminals by sparing their lives. Yet even to this day, in some countries like the USA, the death penalty still exists for some cases. It is truly shocking that we still do not show mercy even though it has been preached to us for a very long time. Even in the days of Shakespeare, it was known that we must show mercy. The poet makes example of this in his great play The Merchant of Venice. One could go so far as to say that mercy is the main theme of the play. He shows his readers many times that for one to receive mercy, one must show mercy to others. This is demonstrated with Lancelot who asks for the forgiveness of his father, with Portia and Nerissa who forgive their husbands after they gave away their rings, and with Shylock who receives no mercy because he shows none to Antonio.
The first example of the importance of mercy in this play occurs when Lancelot asks his father for forgiveness. His father, Gobbo, is sand blind and therefore does not even recognize his own son when he crosses him in the streets of Venice. Seeing this, Lancelot decides to take advantage of the situation by toying with his father. When Gobbo asks him for directions to his son’s dwelling, Lancelot deceives his father and makes him believe that he is dead. This has a hurtful impact on the old man; so, right after making the comment, Lancelot kneels in front of his father and says, “Give me your blessing…” (Shakespeare 82). This shows that even if Lancelot is simply kidding with his father, he feels compelled to ask for forgiveness from him. Gobbo then goes on to help his son get a job working for Bassanio, and their relationship is as strong as ever because he shows his son mercy. His actions in this situation clearly show that no matter how small one’s offense may be, one must ask for forgiveness from the person one has offended, so that they may receive mercy from them in the future.
The second example of the importance of mercy is when Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands after they come home without their rings. When they got married, they both gave their husbands Bassanio and Gratiano rings and they made them swear never to lose them. However, when the two women come to Venice dressed as lawyers, they are given the rings as gifts for saving Antonio. At that point, neither Bassanio nor Gratiano know that those lawyers are their wives, but they give them the rings they vowed to keep forever anyways. When they come home to Belmont, their wives are there waiting for them so they can scold them for that very reason, but they later on proceed to forgive their husbands and give them back the rings. Portia then says to Nerissa, “Give him this, and bid him keep it better than the other” (Shakespeare 45). This demonstrates that no matter how important it is to them that the men keep those rings, they show mercy in forgiving them and giving back the rings. In the end, Portia and Nerissa get rewarded for this merciful act by having their relationships with their husbands repaired, and they go on to live wonderful lives together.
The third example of the importance of mercy is when Shylock offers no mercy to Antonio, but expects mercy in return when he is put in a difficult situation. The main conflict of this play is Shylock who is owed a pound of Antonio’s flesh. All the people of Venice beg the Jew over and over again for him to take his bond, paid many times over by Bassanio, but he refuses. No matter how much money is offered to the devilish man, all he accepts is to take a pound of the merchant’s flesh, which will certainly lead to his death. Although, after Portia comes in and explains to the Duke why Shylock cannot take his forfeiture, Antonio ends up being the one to decide the antagonist’s fate. He can choose to let him walk away as if nothing has ever happened, or he can choose to take half of his fortune and give the other half to the city of Venice. Evidently, he chooses the latter option because Shylock was ready to kill him instead of taking an enormous sum of money. He proceeds to ask Antonio for mercy, he begs that he let him keep at least a fraction of his fortune. To this, Antonio answers, “thou shall hope for mercy when rendering none” (Shakespeare 135). Antonio is telling Shylock that had he shown mercy to Antonio and taken the money offered by Bassanio, he would possibly spare him and let him keep at least a part of his Fortune. Yet Shylock had absolutely no intention to let Antonio leave this encounter unharmed, therefor Antonio has no reason to show mercy in return. Also, we know that Antonio is not a bad man and he is not the type of person to try to get revenge on everybody who wrongs him. Yet in this situation, his foe was willing to risk anything in order to kill him. This triggers the merchant to forget his merciful ways as he strips Shylock away from all of his belongings. In brief, Shakespeare demonstrates to his readers the importance of mercy by showing that had Shylock shown mercy to Antonio, he might have received mercy in return and would have kept his fortune.
These three arguments clearly show that the importance of mercy is one of the main themes in the play The Merchant of Venice. Firstly, Lancelot asks his father for forgiveness and they later go on to work together for Bassanio. Secondly, Portia and Nerissa both forgive their husbands after they give away their rings, which leads to them keeping their relationship intact through the most difficult of times. Thirdly, Shylock shows no mercy to Antonio when offered multiple times the money owed just to spare Antonio’s life, but Antonio goes on to later take half of his fortune and the other half goes to the city of Venice. In all of these cases, those who showed mercy received mercy in return and went on to live prosperous lives, whereas those who did not show mercy received none in return and their lives were ruined for ever because of their refusal to accept anything else than vindictive justice. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
Discrimination in The Merchant of Venice, a Play by William Shakespeare
To Read or Not To Read: Analysis of Discrimination in The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a painful read—much more than Shakespeare’s other plays—because it portrays oppression without taking a stance one way or the other. Portia is undermined by societal gender inequalities, the Prince of Morocco battles racism, and Shylock was written so audiences could dislike him on the basis of his Jewishness and his occupation. However, this prejudice is what makes the play so important to read and reflect upon. The reasoning behind censorship is to protect students from controversial and politically incorrect views, but it is counterproductive to omit topics from a classroom rather than using them as a vehicle for raising awareness. Learning about structural oppression is discouraging, overwhelming, and maddening, but discussion can encourage people to step beyond guilt and anger and begin to think about how to reduce oppression. Since school provides a controlled, secure, and informative learning environment for people, it should be used to broaden discussion about social issues that continue into our postmodern society. Works of literature that provide a variety of viewpoints, even unethical ones, are fundamental to intellectual growth. As long as there is discourse and criticism about the amoral or unethical opinions in such stories, they should be mandatory reads in schools. The Merchant of Venice, with its strong anti-Semitism, underlying sexism, and blatant racism, is a perfect resource for students to clearly understand the societal and interpersonal workings behind prejudice in the real world.
The Prince of Morocco’s black skin is maligned before the character actually appears on stage for himself, further contributing to the racial stigma against people of color in Shakespeare’s time. Portia treats the Prince’s skin color, a physical and uncontrollable factor, more as a negative personality trait. She treats him and his country as “others,” or people so foreign they are practically uncivilized compared to the main characters of the play. “If I could bid the fifth welcome with so good heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should be glad of his approach; if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1.3.127-131). Here, she says she would never want to marry the Prince of Morocco, even if he were a “saint” (1.3.130), because the prince has a dark complexion like “the devil” (1.3.130). Her nonchalant and casual racial intolerance is cruel because she unfairly judges the Prince based on his physical differences while she dismissed potential white suitors based on flawed character traits. Even the Prince shames his own skin color, his opening line being “mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1). In Shakespeare’s day, black men were often associated with evil, thus often filling the role of the villain. In today’s society, blackness is still associated with corruptness, poverty, and malice, and dark-skinned people are still rarely seen in protagonist positions in modern media. There is an implicit racial hierarchy broadcasted throughout media history, reflecting the systematic racism interwoven into our society over centuries. Whether media portrays superheroes, animated animals, fairies or cars, this same racial pyramid persists through the realm: white or white-voiced characters at the top and other ethnicities below with the darkest-skinned at the bottom. Audiences soak in this unspoken and virtually undetectable racism, and how diversity is portrayed on screen, on a stage, or in a play is a big part in learning this prejudice. Allowing discussion and criticism of the discrimination committed against the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice is a way to countermand the continued dehumanization of people of color in media and its translation in the real-world.
Shakespeare portrays his female characters as victims of a patriarchal society, their characters conveying the restrictions placed on women. Portia’s father’s power over his daughter, even in death, demonstrates the control men have in the affairs of women, as though they were property rather than human beings: “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). In fact, when describing the test the suitors must undertake, she says “If you choose that wherein I am contained, straight shall our nuptial rights be solemnised” (2.9.5-6). Portia is “contained” (2.9.5) in the box, imprisoned by this test her father created to control her. Additionally, women were not allowed in court, yet when Portia dresses up as a man, she is acknowledged as learned and wise. Portia poking fun of each suitor for being drunk or obsessed with his horse compares her high intelligence against her male counterparts’ faults. Even as a witty and intelligent character, she is only able to exercise power and authority when she is under the guise of a male. The female characters achieve their goals better than their husbands’ as “males”, only to return to the clichéd “prize to be won” or the “nagging wife” as females. As a woman, her opinion, personality, and character is negligible compared to her as a man. Throughout history, the majority of anonymous writers, artists, and workers have been female; otherwise, their work would have gone unnoticed and discarded. Confronting the structured gender roles and sexist ideals that are rooted in historical circumstances needs a clear example on what sexism looks like.
The Merchant of Venice supports anti-Semitism by depicting Shylock as a stereotypical greedy Jewish moneylender intending to usurp the “good” Christian character. Shylock’s suggestion that a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment, reminds Shakespeare’s 16th century audience of the false stories about murderous Jews seeking Christian blood for religious rituals. Shylock is driven by an inherent cruelty based on the current time period’s loathing for Jewish people. In an aside, Shylock describes his nemesis, Antonio, “How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian” (1.3.41-42). Shylock has shown himself to be just as hateful and spiteful as Antonio—the only difference between the two is that Shylock is not just an old moneylender being tried in court, but the vilified stereotype of an entire religion. Greedy, pitiless, and obsessed with the letter of the law, he chooses to turn away from Christ’s clemency and not take Antonio’s flesh, and thus condemns himself and his religion. Shakespeare meant to contrast the kind main Christian characters with the vindictive Jew, who lacks the ability to comprehend mercy. Also, by sentencing Shylock and giving Antonio a happy ending, Shakespeare condones the racist actions committed against Shylock, including calling him a “misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (1.3.121-122). Thus, Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in the play reinforces the stereotype of Jews as bloodthirsty and avaricious. Throughout history, Jews have been blamed for everything from the attacks on the Twin Towers to the Iraq War to natural disasters, leading to hate crimes such as the Holocaust. The continual persecution of Jews calls for the need to discuss the depiction of Jews in literature. Learning about the causes and consequences of anti-Semitism lays the foundation for discussion of the issues in the real world.
While times have changed greatly since The Merchant of Venice was first performed, the same social issues still stand. Throughout history, people have written literature to knowingly or unknowingly portray the views and culture of their time. Texts and stories are never “just books”; they are an outlet for discussion and reflection on people’s views about the past, present, or future. The only way to eradicate ignorance is to look through the lens of the ignorant himself. However, when negative portrayals of minorities are read without or critical analysis, students accept such depictions as accurate. Criticizing stereotypes offers students an opportunity to observe and analyze them. Reading The Merchant of Venice in school helps examine the historic and modern roots of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism and empowers students to question and overcome stereotypical and negative conceptions.
The Role of Daughter and the Historical Context
The daughters of Elizabethan England were predominantly subject to their father’s wishes. This is particularly evident in terms of the main female character, Portia, who must obey her father even after his death:
O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard Nerrissa that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
What seems to be normal prose is permeated by poetic devices such as repetition and internal rhyming which emphasise Portia’s lament. “Choose” is repeated three times, and the internal rhyme of “choose” and “refuse” is also repeated. The word “will” is repeated and seems to be punning on ‘last will and testament’, which serves to further press the finality of her father’s sentence. This rhetorical style seems to be a pre-cursor to the later court scene in which Antonio is saved by Portia’s ingenuity and subtlety of speech.
Harley Granville-Barker said in his essay on the character of Portia that; “to the very end she expands her fine freedom, growing in authority and dignity, fresh touches of humour enlightening her”. This is interesting to the modern reader as she has no freedom in the sense that we would understand. Portia’s choices are initially governed by her deceased father to the extent that he restricts her selection of husband, who will in turn take command of her finances and supervise her future decisions. It could be seen from the point of view that this is not necessarily a bad thing, indeed it is Nerrissa who says, “Your father was ever virtuous,…therefore the lottery that he hath devised…will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love”. (The merchant of Venice, Act 1:3, lines 27 – 31 page 429) Is Portia’s father therefore giving Portia the freedom not to choose? After all there is “freedom to and freedom from”#, and Portia is free from the pressure of unwanted suitors, interested in her fortune only. This is due to “the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver and lead” which arguably, by the nature of their riddle, deter this form of suit. It is true that the suitors which she and Nerrissa ridiculed were all undone by this riddle and that Portia’s eventual marriage to Bassanio, whom was chosen by her also, is a well matched one. It is possible that this is some kind of cautionary allegory to women to instruct them that they must obey their fathers, because they know best.
However, it could be argued that Portia is no mere instrument to her fathers will and that she in fact, takes her freedom for herself, by such delicate means as are barely perceptible. This is evident in Act Three, Scene Two, where it falls to Bassanio, her favoured suitor, to make his decision. Strangely Portia orders, “Let music sound while he doth make his choice” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:2, line 43, page 439), this she does not do for any other suitor, and the reasons she gives do not seem as important as the fact that the song holds a potential clue to the riddle:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engendered with the eyes.
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy’s knell.
I’ll begin it: ding, dong, bell.
Ding, dong, bell.
Firstly, and most notably, the first three lines of the song end with words that rhyme with lead, it is as if Bassanio is being sub-consciously prodded towards the correct choice. Secondly is the subject of the song; which is “fancy”. It implies a “superficial or transient feeling of attraction”, made clear in the first lines of the second stanza, where it is discouraged. The rhymes here are on “eyes”, “dies” and “lies” all which may have a double meaning. “Eyes” are the only place such superficial love pervades, not in the heart or in the head, and this love is short lived once “gazing (is) fed”. “Dies” can be said to emphasise the idea of sexual love if taken as a pun meaning ‘to climax’, and “lies” which can have several meanings, literally ‘to lie down’ or to lie down in death, also lie as in to tell an untruth, implying that this is what aesthetics can do, and lie as in to sleep with, once again emphasising the sordid aspect of “fancy”. These combine to give Bassanio a hint as to which casket to pick, therefore Portia has not been entirely passive in the decision process.
Jessica is different in that she actively opposes her father’s wishes. She is also different in that it does not seem that her father for her in the way that Portia’s father has done. Shylock is more interested in money, and as Lancelot points out, “…look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:5, line 31, page 442), to which she jokingly replies, “you are no good member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians you raise the price of Pork (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:5, line 57, page 442)”. His words are almost biblical in their sound, and emphasise the sense of their separation through religion, and also show the general dislike of Jews and their “sins”. Jessica shows her awareness of money and commerce; she is parodying her father’s concerns to make light of the situation. Jessica is shown to be witty, just as Portia is when discussing her suitors. Jessica however, deceives her father, whilst being outwardly compliant. For example when Lancelot tells her to prepare to elope, she tells her father, “His words were ‘Farewell mistress’, nothing else.”, (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2:5, line 10, page. 434) and her final words to his back, “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter lost.” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2:5, line 55, page 434) seem to show no emotion at the parting, and the word “fortune” accentuates the idea of women being used as a commodity, and what she is escaping from. Is she perhaps also playing on the word “crossed” in relation to her later change of sex?
It is important that both Jessica’s and Portia’s cross dressing help them to escape the male dominance of the world, but it shows that they still must have the appearance of being male to do this, it is the classic route of the Shakespearian heroine to dress as a man to achieve her own ends. Portia acknowledges this when she says; “They shall [see us] but in such a habit / That they shall think we are accomplished / with what we lack” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3:4 line 60, page. 442), she knows that women are not able to be taken seriously in the male spheres of medicine and the law. She is being ironic, knowing that she lacks nothing, but also knowing that her wit and intelligence could not be recognised as a woman. The giving of the rings to their husbands taking them back when cross-dressed is perhaps not so cruel as it initially seems, are Jessica and Portia merely demonstrating to their husbands that outward appearances can be deceptive. This is a significant theme in the play, and an undercurrent to other aspects of the plot such as in the casket scene, and in Shylock’s speech concerning Jews. After all Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy, (in the same scene) shows her pragmatism, but she does not follow her own example because she wants to kill Shylock, saying “For as thou urgest justice, be assured / Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st.” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 4:1, lines 313 – 314, page 446). This subtle threat, with the accusatory repetition of the word “thou”, seems to inform Shylock that it is his own evil that will bring evil upon him.
Shakespeare’s heroines are shown to be inherently tough characters, and able to act using their own judgement and intelligence. This is not only shown in The Merchant of Venice, but with Rosalind in As You Like it, as well as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, to a certain extent, and Desdemona in Othello, to cite just a few examples. In the comedies it is usual that cross dressing, or the use of masques are what enable the daughters to the most part, and they are outwardly compliant whilst being secretly defiant. It is also important that Shakespeare does not stereotype the female reaction to a father, different fathers are reacted against with different levels of resistance, as is evident in Portia’s very mild deviation from her father, and in Jessica’s abject violation of her father’s wishes. To some extent therefore, Shakespeare could be said to be making a feminist statement, by not treating all women as a single entity, and by presenting each case by merit, and by using the language of his poetry to show the hidden facets of his characters. In other words, he portrays women as real and important people.
Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, (Vintage 1996)
Granville-Barker, Harley, ‘The characters, and The Crises of Action’, in Shakespeare, Modern essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean (New York, Oxford University Press, reprinted 1967)
Granville-Barker, Harley and G.B Harrison (editors), A Companion to Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge University Press, first printed 1934, last printed 1962)
Shakespeare, William, The Oxford Shakespeare, The complete Works, (Clarendon, Oxford University Press, 1988)
Soanes, Catherine and Waite, Maurice (editors), Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide (Oxford university Press, 2001)