Compare and contrast Venice and Belmont. What is the significance of these distinct settings in the play?
In the sixteenth century, Venice was a robust and independent city-state with its own laws and statutes. Its location allowed commercial routes to Asia and Africa. Consequently, with its unusual geography and traders and merchants from various places in the world, Venice became a cosmopolitan location that bustled with people from many walks of life. In Venice, the Jewish population was required to live in a ghetto. The meaning of this word has been disputed, but one explanation of its etymology claims that ghetto is derived from the Italian word borghetto, which is a diminutive of the word borgo, meaning "little town."
In contrast to Venice with its many levels of society and foreigners coming in and out, Belmont is an imagined place that Shakespeare created to contrast with the crass commercial city of Venice. Reportedly, he based Belmont (the name suggests two French words, bel (beautiful) and mont (mountain)) on a literary work he read since he supposedly never left England:
Il Pecorone is a novella composed around 1380 and printed in Italian in 1558, wherein the character Gianetto travels a long distance from Venice to see the Lady of Belmont.
Belmont, in Shakespeare's play, is a place inhabited by the nobility, and its only body of water is a tranquil river. Before the trial in Venice, Portia tells Nerissa that they must go ten miles. She also mentions a monastery as being two miles away. There is a famous grand mansion on the bank of the River Brenta—the Villa Foscari-Malcontenta—that is in this location. Thus, it is in a somewhat pastoral setting, calm and peaceful. The area is one that is refined and secure. There is also a privacy to Belmont that contrasts with the bustling streets of Venice and its ports.
During Shakespeare's time, Jewish people were not allowed in England by law. Venice was more tolerant, at least by comparison. Because Venice was a center of trade, the city had laws to protect foreign traders and keep the economy strong. Still, strife was common enough in Venice despite the diversity, and though Jews were allowed to live there, they were forced to live in ghettos during Shakespeare's time.
In the play, Venice is the epitome of big city living, with most of the action of the play taking place out on the street, where traders and merchants and money-lenders are hustling and doing business. It is very public, with everyone's business discussed on the street; consider Shylock running around and yelling about his daughter and ducats. Venice's interest focuses on money and wealth, and it is a place where one's fortunes seem to rise and fall easily.
In contrast, Belmont seems to embody the quiet, calm countryside, where one can retreat when the hustle and bustle of Venice is too much. Its beauty and peacefulness are reflected in Portia herself, a beautiful, wealthy woman who seems in control of every situation. When Portia is at home, she spends her time gossiping with her servant and entertaining suitors. The pace of life in Belmont is slower and more relaxed than it is in Venice.
Venice in The Merchant of Venice is associated with trade and greed. It is a city in which Shylock, who is Jewish, is allowed to live and trade, unlike Elizabethan England (which did not allow Jews). In Venice, anyone who contributes to trade is allowed, and the religious differences between Jews and Christians contribute to a diverse but tense environment. Venice stands for a kind of religious tolerance in favor of trade, but it is also a city roiled by conflict and ruled by greed. Belmont, where Portia lives, is naturally beautiful and peaceful. It has a quality of enchantment and resembles the woods of a fairy tale. It is here where Portia can roam freely, unlike in the streets of Venice (where she must disguise herself as a man), and it's a place where she has more power. Belmont stands for everything Venice is not—it is a place where women and men live in greater equality and where peace reigns, unlike in the chaotic and cosmopolitan streets of Venice.