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...
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