How is the theme of blindness demonstrated by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice? Explain with these characters: Old Gobbo, Portia, Antonio, and Shylock.
Blindness and insight are central themes in The Merchant of Venice, and Shakespeare explores these in various ways during the course of the play. The blindness that is most problematic—and most critiqued—is metaphoric blindness or an inability to perceive the reality of a situation.
This is highlighted through Old Gobbo, a minor character in the play who provides comic relief but also does double duty in drawing attention to the blindness theme. He is physically blind, but, more importantly, he is "blind" to recognizing his son's voice, even though his hearing is intact. In act II, scene ii, he says to his son Launcelot:
Alack, sir, I am sand-blind; I know you not.
Launcelot rightly intuits that it is not a physical but a relational handicap, a lack of love, that causes Old Gobbo to have trouble recognizing his voice. As Launcelot says:
Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of
the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his
In other words, physical blindness is an excuse: Gobbo should be able to recognize his son in other ways. This contrast is highlighted when Lorenzo, in act 2, scene 6 can discern his beloved Jessica in the dark by her voice.
Portia is metaphorically blinded by her father's will and by her gender. In these cases, blindness is a form of constraint—like a blind or blindfolded person, Portia cannot move as freely as she would like. Her gender becomes a restraint because she is not allowed to choose her own husband and cannot, as a woman, defend Antonio in law court. However, Portia demonstrates her ingenuity and superior ability (suggesting that it is the men who are actually blind in strait-jacketing women into subordinate roles) by having music played that helps guide Bassanio towards picking the right casket and disguising herself as a male lawyer to be able to save Antonio.
Jessica says "love is blind," and this theme plays out in Antonio, who is so blinded by love or affection for Bassanio that he dismisses the risk he is taking in agreeing to Shylock's terms for the loan. This costs him dearly, as he almost loses his life. Antonio also represents generalized male blindness to female ability: he does not recognize that it is Portia dressed as a male lawyer. He is also blind to the implications of how he has treated Shylock and, by extension, Jews in particular, blithely sure of his power and privilege to the point of not seeing the seething anger and resentment he has raised in Shylock through his arrogant and abusive treatment of him.
Finally, Shylock is metaphorically blinded by his desire for revenge. He so badly wants to get back at Antonio, the epitome of abusive privilege, that he loses sight of the fact that his revenge scheme is too gruesome to be reasonable, and that, as a Jew, he is unlikely to encounter a level playing field in a Venetian law court. He is also blind to his daughter's resentment of him and desire to marry Lorenzo.
Lack of perception and empathy is a chief cause of blindness in this play, as is love.