Through the years, The Merchant of Venice has been one of William Shakespeare’s most popular and most frequently performed plays. The work has an interesting and fast-moving plot, and it evokes an idyllic, uncorrupted world reminiscent of folktale and romance. From the opening description of Antonio’s nameless sadness, the world is bathed in light and music. The insistently improbable plot is complicated only by the evil influence of Shylock, and he is disposed of by the end of act 4. However, Shakespeare uses this fragile vehicle to make significant points about justice, mercy, and friendship, three typical Renaissance virtues. Although some critics suggest that the play contains all of the elements of tragedy only to be rescued by a comic resolution, the tone of the whole play creates a benevolent world in which, despite some opposition, things will always work out for the best.
The story, based on ancient tales that could have been drawn from many sources, is actually two stories in one—the casket plot, involving the choice by the suitor and his reward with Portia, and the bond plot, involving the loan and the attempt to exact a pound of flesh. Shakespeare’s genius is revealed in the way he combines the two. Although they intersect from the start in the character of Bassanio, who occasions Antonio’s debt and is a suitor, they fully coalesce when Portia comes to Venice in disguise to make her plea and judgment for Antonio. At that point, the bond plot is unraveled by the casket heroine, after which the fifth act brings the celebratory conclusion and joy.
The most fascinating character to both audiences and critics always has been Shylock, the outsider, the anomaly in this felicitous world. Controversy rages over just what kind of villain Shylock is and just how villainous Shakespeare intended him to be. The matter is complicated by the desire to absolve Shakespeare of the common medieval and Renaissance vice of anti-Semitism. Some commentators argued that in Shylock Shakespeare takes the stock character of the Jew—as personified in Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas in his The Jew of Malta (1589)—and fleshes him out with complicating human characteristics. Some went so far as to argue that, even in his villainy, Shylock is presented as a victim of the Christian society, the grotesque product of hatred and ostracism. Regardless of Shakespeare’s personal views, the fact remains that, in his treatment, Shylock becomes much more than a stock villain.
The more significant dramatic question is just what sort of character Shylock is and what sort of role he is being called upon to play. Certainly he is an outsider in both appearance and action, a stranger to the light and gracious world of Venice and Belmont. His language is full of stridency and materialism, which isolates him from the other characters. He has no part in the network of beautiful friendships that unites the others. He is not wholly a comic character, for despite often appearing ridiculous, he poses too much of a threat to be dismissed lightly. However, he is too ineffectual and grotesque to be a villain as cold and terrifying as Iago or Edmund, or one as engaging as Richard III. He is a malevolent force, who is finally overcome by the more generous world in which he lives. That he is treated so harshly by the Christians is the kind of irony that ultimately protects Shakespeare from charges of mindless anti-Semitism. Still, on the level of the romantic plot, he is also the serpent in the garden, deserving summary expulsion and the forced conversion that is both a punishment and a charity.
The rest of the major characters have much more in common with each other as sharers in the common civilization of Venice. As they come into conflict with Shylock and form relationships with one another, they act out the ideals and commonplaces of high Renaissance culture. Antonio, in his small but pivotal role, is afflicted with a fashionable melancholy and a gift for friendship. It is his casually generous act of friendship that sets the bond plot in motion. Bassanio frequently comments on friendship and knows how to accept generosity gracefully, but Bassanio is not only a model Renaissance friend but also a model Renaissance lover. He is quite frankly as interested in Portia’s money as in her wit and beauty; he unself-consciously represents a cultural integration of love and gain quite different from Shylock’s materialism. When he chooses the leaden casket, he does so for precisely the right traditional reason—a distrust of appearances, a recognition that the reality does not always correspond. Of course, his success as suitor is never really in doubt but is choreographed like a ballet. In any case, it is always the third suitor who is the successful one in folktales. What the ballet provides is another opportunity for the expression of the culturally correct sentiments.
Portia, too, is a heroine of her culture. She is not only an object of love but also a witty and an intelligent woman whose ingenuity resolves the central dilemma. That she, too, is not what she seems to be in the trial scene is another example of the dichotomy between familiar appearance and reality. More important, she has the opportunity to discourse on the nature of mercy as opposed to strict justice and to give an object lesson that he who lives by the letter of the law will perish by it.
With Shylock safely, if a bit harshly, out of the way, the last act is an amusing festival of vindication of cultural values. The characters have had their opportunity to comment on the proper issues—love, friendship, justice, and the disparity between appearances and reality. Now all receive their appropriate reward in marriages and reunions or, in the case of Antonio, with the pleasantly gratuitous recovery of his fortune. There is no more trouble in paradise among the people of grace.