How are Renaissance marriage customs relevant to the play The Merchant Of Venice?

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare mainly discusses the marriage customs of his day through Portia's situation.  Her father's casket test for her suitors reveals several truths of Renaissance marriages.

1. Among the aristocracy, marriages were arranged by the young woman's father.  Even though Portia's father is dead and she is an extremely independent young woman, she still wishes and must follow his stipulations.

2. Renaissance marriages were based on what those involved could get from the match. The man who chooses the correct casket first wins not only Portia, but also power over Belmont and great wealth.  So, suitors such as the Arragon from Spain care nothing about the marriage itself or Portia--they simply want the tangible benefits that marrying her will get them. This is also true of Portia's way of thinking.  While she does desire a husband with wit, looks, and manners, she also wants someone who is equal to her in class.  This is why Bassanio must borrow money from Antonio to put on the appearance of being wealthy and worthy of Portia's hand.

One more aspect of marriages from Shakepeare's time is connected to the situation between Shylock and his daughter Jessica. Even though Jessica disobeyed her father and eloped with a non-Jew, many in the "Christian" community believe that she and Lorenzo are entitled to Shylock's money and possessions.  This demonstrates once again the double standard that existed among the Elizabethan British in regards to the Jews and their own customs.