The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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How does Shakespeare demonstrate the theme of blindness through the characters Old Gobbo, Antonio, Portia, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice?

Shakespeare demonstrates the theme of blindness through Old Gobbo's lack of sight, Antonio's blind loyalty to Bassanio, Portia's subjection to blind fortune in determining who will marry her, and Shylock's emotional blindness.

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Blindness is a very important theme running right through Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It goes from the actual physical blindness of Old Gobbo to the metaphorical blindness of Antonio through to the emotional blindness of Shylock.

Old Gobbo is blind, or functionally blind at the very least....

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Blindness is a very important theme running right through Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It goes from the actual physical blindness of Old Gobbo to the metaphorical blindness of Antonio through to the emotional blindness of Shylock.

Old Gobbo is blind, or functionally blind at the very least. Because of his blindness, he's unable to recognize his own son Lancelot in a scene that's played for laughs. As well as being literally blind, Old Gobbo is figuratively blind in that he's not a particularly wise man. As Lancelot ruefully reflects, even if his old man had perfect eyesight, there's still every reason to believe that he wouldn't really know him.

Metaphorical blindness comes to the fore in the character of Antonio. He displays blind loyalty to Bassanio, even at the cost of his business and, potentially, his life. Successive generations of playgoers have scratched their heads at what they see as the strange behavior Antonio exhibits towards this improvident youth. They have wondered how anyone who makes his living as a businessman could be quite such a soft touch in bailing someone out, even if they're a friend.

On this particular occasion, it's Antonio who borrows money from Shylock in order to give it to Bassanio. In doing so, he's showing blind loyalty to someone who perhaps doesn't deserve it. The consequences of this action come close to being very deadly indeed.

Now that Portia's father is dead, the choice of a future husband has been left to blind fortune by way of the casket game. The game was devised by Portia's father as a way of keeping gold-diggers from her door.

Whoever chooses the casket will win Portia's hand in marriage. This will be decided largely by the forces of fortune, which are, of course, blind. That being the case, Portia tries to make things a little more predictable by dropping massive hints during the casket test to ensure that the man she wants, Bassanio, chooses the right casket and takes her hand in marriage.

Finally, we have Shylock. His blindness is primarily emotional. His whole life revolves around business, and so he's unable to develop close relationships with anyone, not even his own daughter Jessica, who runs away from home in order to escape her father's domestic tyranny.

A certain moral blindness can also be seen in Shylock's attitude towards Christians. Understandably, given the anti-Semitic abuse he has to put up with on a daily basis, Shylock loathes Christians for the way they treat him. At the same time, Shylock's hatred of Christians eats him up to such an extent that he becomes vindictive in his legal case against Antonio. Shylock over-reaches himself, and in the process is forced to converse to Christianity.

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