Merchant of Venice: The Paradox of Being a Human

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’, displays an array of human experiences, lived out by the characters. These experiences differ between people due to the context of the play. Set in Venice, the atmosphere is multicultural, exotic and extremely money and power driven. This text is a prime example of how being human is a profound paradox, displayed through the actions of Shylock. Shylock is portrayed as a paradoxical character throughout the text as we understand him as unruly and cruel Jew, who’s selfish behaviour is contradicted by his emotions and beliefs. Hence throughout the play, outspoken feminist Portia also demonstrates she is a paradox to society as she determines her own fate and manipulates situations for her own humour.

Throughout the example of these two characters, demonstrates how being human is a profound paradox. Throughout ‘The Merchant of Venice’ it is understood that Shylock is selfish, heartless and money-obsessed. Due to the context of the play, he is seen as a stereotypical Jew of the time who has faced the persecution of Venetian Christians. Although throughout the play, it is unveiled that Shylock has reasoning to his malice. Due to ongoing persecution, Shylock has been forced to develop resentment to his treatment and develops villainous and irrational characteristics. An example of this in the text is when Shylock is asked by the Duke to show Antonio mercy, however Shylock refuses. Although he does not provide a valid explanation of why he will not show Antonio mercy he states “You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have a weight of carrion flesh than to receive three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that, but say it is my humour. Is it answered?”. This statement demonstrates how Shylocks dull and straight-forward language is used to offend Antonio as comparing his flesh to that of ‘carrion flesh’, but to also demonstrate that he gains humour from the idea of harm towards Antonio.

Although his argument may not be valid to the Duke, Shylocks resentment to Antonio is made obvious. Although to the audience Shylock is seen as unreasonable, it is uncovered that his actions are due to his previous treatment. This is where Shylock is seen as a paradox to the human experience, as he causes the audience to sympathise with him, even as he is viewed as a villain. Shylocks villainous traits are a creation of circumstance as the audience understands him to be a victim of persecution. Shylock makes the point of equality between Jews and Christians and states his emotional speech where he exclaims “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”. Through this speech the audience gains an understanding of how emotionally damaged Shylock is due to the events of persecution which is a major contrast to his previous behaviour of cruelty. Through this speech, Shylock perception shifts from a villain to a victim of society, and is seen as weak and full of emotions, which the audience had not been exposed to before in the play. This paradox of turning from villain to victim demonstrates the idea that being human is a profound paradox, and in Shylocks case, is dependent on the context of the time and circumstances that determine one’s character and emotions.

Furthermore, Portia is displayed as ‘the perfect woman’. Described of being beautiful, intelligent and polite. However, underneath the perception of her manners and beauty is the drive for determining her own fate, as well as her cunning intelligence that allows her to manipulate situations in her favour. An example of this is when the three caskets were displayed to determine her husband, as ordered by her father. Although it is Venetian Law for a daughter to fully obey her father, she manipulates the suitors so that Bassanio chooses the right casket, which in her favour, allowed them to marry. If these actions were discovered, Portia’s name would have been shamed for disobedience. Women of the Venetian society were not seen as intelligent and always below men on the social hierarchy. However, Portia is a paradox to this as she is seen as a vulnerable woman in search of a husband at the start of the play, but then uses her intelligence to manipulate the law to save Antonio’s life. Through this Portia receives quiet satisfaction of that she is of equal power to men. This demonstrates Portia’s confidence in herself and also her belief that she is equal to a man. In Act 4 the trial scene, disguised as a man, Portia demonstrates her devotion to the law, however also tries to incorporate the idea of mercy. She gave Shylock the choice to be merciful or the court would abide by the law. Shylock believed he was entitled to justice, therefore Portia used the words of the bond to her advantage and releases Antonio from his debt. The behaviour of dressing as a man and ‘out-smarting’ a court of men allowed her to feel a sense of accomplishment, which was rare for a woman of Venetian society to want.

After the trial had taken place, Portia and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa, deprive Bassanio of a promise ring, to further test her husband’s loyalty. Portia states “Even so void is you false heart of truth. By heaven, I will never come in your bed until I see the ring”. The trick goes far enough to berate him about his loyalty, although Portia sees the humorous side as she still possesses the ring, and enjoys seeing the humiliation of her husband. This behaviour would have been seen outrageous in society as it was highly frowned upon for a woman to humiliate a man, especially her husband. However, Bassanio has no choice but to understand and be grateful that Portia’s wit and intelligence, as saved the life of Antonio. Portia’s manipulative actions and intelligent nature, allows herself to be an example of a profound human paradox throughout the play.

In conclusion, throughout the play ‘Merchant of Venice’ Shylock and Portia both demonstrate paradoxical qualities that allow them to be seen as example of humans being profound paradoxes as they challenge the morals of society.


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