The Merchant of Venice Themes in the Play
Love and Wealth… • Many works of literature deal with conflicts between love and money. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare takes a more unusual approach to this subject, treating love as just another form of wealth. • Shakespeare seems to be saying that love and money are similar. They are blessings to those who can pursue them in the right spirit. On the other hand, those who are too possessive or too greedy, will get pleasure neither from the pursuit of romantic love nor from the accumulation of wealth. • Bassanio sets out to win Portia's love, solving his money problems at the same time. Shylock, in contrast, is a miser who hoards both his gold and his love and loses his daughter and his riches simultaneously. • Antonio demonstrates the love of one friend for another by pledging his own flesh to guarantee a loan for Bassanio. He, too, is rewarded for his generosity. Not only do Antonio's ships come in at the end of the play, but Bassanio's fortunate marriage enriches Antonio as well, bringing him Portia's loyalty and friendship.
Mercy Vs. Revenge… • A number of Shakespeare's plays are concerned with the question of justice and the nature of legitimate authority. The Merchant of Venice poses the question of whether the law should be tempered by mercy, or whether it should be morally neutral. • If neutral, then the law can become a tool in the hands of men such as Shylock, who use it to further their own personal vendettas. • In Act IV of the play, we find Portia arguing that the justice of the state, like God's justice, ought to be merciful. Mercy does triumph eventually in this courtroom scene, but not until Portia reveals a legal loophole which makes it possible for the Duke to rule in her favour. • In the world of this comedy, at least, the conflict between morally neutral law and merciful law is easily resolved. Readers do disagree, however, as to how well the theme of mercy's triumph over revenge is carried out by the "good" characters' treatment of Shylock. • You will have to decide for yourself whether Shylock's punishment at the end of the trial scene is truly merciful- or whether he in fact becomes the victim of an unconscious streak of vengefulness in the character of Antonio.
Harmony… • In a reading of the play a number of sub-themes are revealed that contrast other sets of values, in addition to those of mercy and revenge. • The test of the three caskets points to the truth that external beauty and inner worth are not always found together. • On the whole, the play stresses harmony, not conflict. The play seems to tell us that in a well-balanced life the pursuit and enjoyment of money, romantic love, and deep friendship will not necessarily conflict. It is possible to experience and enjoy all of these things - but only if we do not place undue importance on gaining any one of them. • The theme of harmony is stressed throughout the play by the use of music and musical imagery. Portia and Lorenzo both praise and enjoy music for its power to ease sorrowful moments and make us more reflective in times of happiness. Notice, too, that Shylock- the character who is out of harmony with society - fears the power of music. He even orders his daughter to close up the house to keep out the music of the masque.
Friendship… • It is not only romantic love that is discussed as a form of wealth in The Merchant of Venice. Friendship, too, is an important aspect of "love's wealth." • The idea that a husband and wife should be best friends and a happy marriage takes precedence over outside friendships is a modern one. Shakespeare's audience would no doubt have found this notion rather bizarre - suitable, perhaps for starry-eyed and headstrong young lovers, but hardly the basis for life-long happiness. • In the play, Portia demonstrates her depth of character by understanding that her husband's happiness depends on his ability to discharge his obligations as a friend. Thus, his loyalties have become her loyalties. The Elizabethans expected friendship to be the glue that held together business relationships between social equals. • It is understandable, that in Elizabethan society, Shylock's refusal to dine with Bassanio is treated as an act of hostility. This was a common view; religious laws which kept Jews from socialising with Christians on a friendly basis were seen as sinister, and an expression of untrustworthy intentions. This explains the frequent references to the eating of pork throughout the play.
Appearance Vs. Reality… • Appearances can be deceiving.The Merchant of Venice warns us repeatedly that outer beauty is not necessarily evidence of inner worth. As the motto on the gold casket puts it: "All that glisters is not gold." • There is some belief that the emphasis on this moral is out of place in the play. After all, Portia the heroine turns out to be as good and wise as she is beautiful and rich. • However, another way of looking at this theme's relation to the action is to say that Shakespeare has gone beyond the obvious, clichéd implications of his theme to hit on a deeper reality. Even a beautiful, desirable woman deserves to be loved for her inner self, not just collected like an object of art. • The rewards from all worthwhile relationships can be achieved only when the partners open their hearts to each other. By the same reasoning, money itself is not necessarily a bad thing - but you must be careful to love it for the good it can do. Shylock's failing is not that he is rich, but that he seeks to use his money for an evil end – revenge!