How is the theme of fathers and daughters explored in The Merchant of Venice?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Let us remember that in this excellent play we have two main father-daughter relationships: Portia and her dead father, who, nonetheless, still manages to exert massive influence over her life, and then Jessica and Shylock.

If we think about both of these relationships, we might be led to believe that the similarities between them outweigh the disadvantages, as both relationships seem to be characterised by the way in which the father restricts the freedom of the daughter. Note Portia's complaint to Nerissa concerning her father's will and the "test" he has devised to ensure that Portia marries suitably:

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, Nerissa that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?

In the same way, if we examine Jessica's comments to Launcelot in Act II scene 3, she points towards the way in which her father oppresses her:

I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so.

Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,

Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.

The way in which Shylock locks Jessica up while he goes out, and Jessica's description of it as "hell" is strongly indicative of the way that this relationship restricts her freedom.

However, a closer examination of Portia's relationship with her father reveals the loving kindness behind his plan to ensure Portia does not marry a fortune hunter. Note how Nerissa counsels her:

Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love.

We can see the wisdom and the love behind Portia's father's plan, whilst the relationship between Jessica and Shylock is characterised in merely negative terms. The outcome of both of these relationships is likewise different. Portia follows her father's commands to find love and happiness, whereas Jessica must break free from her father's rule to gain her love and happiness.

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