Compare and contrast Venice and Belmont. What is the significance of these distinct settings in the play?
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.