Discuss pride as a motif in The Merchant of Venice. What does Shakespeare intend for the audience to understand about pride?
Pride surfaces several times throughout The Merchant of Venice. Antonio who actually swallows his pride when he asks Shylock for a loan to enable him to help Bassanio, for whom he would do anything, does not display the same measure of humility when he has the better of Shylock, "the Jew," towards the conclusion of the play.
Portia, strong and independent understands her loyalty to her late father and although she feels "curb'd by the will of a dead father"(I.ii.20)she will honor his wishes. However, she does not want to "be married to a sponge" (88) so will manipulate the situation to ensure she can secure the best suitor - Bassanio. She thus reveals her own selfish pride as she mocks her potential husbands even though "it is a sin to be a mocker"(53).
The caskets serve as a symbol of the dangers of unchecked pride as the penalty for choosing incorrectly is disastrous. Beware that "all that glisters is not gold" (II.vii.65). The Prince of Arragon sees himself as superior and has no doubt he will choose wisely. His assessment is guided by his pride as he will "not choose what many men desire Because I will not jump with common spirits and rank me with the barbarous multitudes"(II.ix.31-2). His choice of silver will render him "as much as he deserves"(50).Such pride however reduces him to "a blinking idiot."(54)
Shylock reveals his unchecked pride when he thinks he has got the better of Antonio and can demand his "pound of flesh." He refuses to show mercy to Antonio, despite Portia's assurance that "it blesseth him that gives and him that takes"(IV.i.182). Shylock feels justified and "I will have it"(100) because the Christians - Antonio particularly - have never show compassion for him and in fact Shylock maintains that "the villainy you teach me I will execute"(III.i.61). The Christians have made him bitter and he is a proud man.
Antonio, initially so humble, reveals his selfish pride when he can now take advantage of Shylock's compromised state. He knows that making Shylock convert to Christianity would be the ultimate insult and Shylock would rather die but, instead of showing that compassion the Christians speak of, he takes this opportunity to ruin Shylock.
The Merchant of Venice uses these means to warn the audience of the dangers of unchecked pride. Bassanio who shows humility - despite his initial attraction to Portia being greed - and makes a considered choice in selecting the right casket - the lead casket -reveals his ability to see through the false perceptions as "the world is still deceiv'd with ornament" (III.ii.74). It is he and Portia who seem the most content and they indeed showed the most humility. Antonio, whilst vindicated has nothing of worth to show for it. His melancholy from the beginning of the play remains unexplained and maybe foreshadows the danger of getting your revenge but finding no satisfaction in selfish motives.