Illustrate the theme of friendship and loyalty in The Merchant of Venice.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare approaches themes of friendship and loyalty in several different ways, some more obvious than others. Characters exemplify both loyalty and disloyalty.

The most obvious example of loyalty and friendship is that of Antonio, who risks his money and even body to help his friend Bassanio. He models a form of loyalty which includes self-sacrifice and is a model of the Christian virtue of non-sexual forms of love. Portia is also a positive example of loyalty, using bravery and intelligence to help her beloved and his friend.

Shylock is a more controversial character, but one could say that he is ultimately admirable in the way he remains loyal to his religious tradition as long as possible despite the pressures on him to convert to Christianity and compromise with the oppressive power of the Christian religion. Although Shylock is, to a certain degree, a villain in the play, he does demonstrate the characteristic of loyalty to his faith until he is finally compelled to convert, albeit unwillingly. His daughter, Jessica, though, not only in her conversion but in her treatment of her father, is disloyal.

Bassanio appears a very self-centered character, mainly pursuing his own advantage. He exploits Antonio's good nature and seems an unworthy husband for the clever and engaging Portia. He is a fairly unimpressive model of friendship.

Nerissa is Portia’s lady-in-waiting and a witty and entertaining character who demonstrates loyalty to Portia. Her comic subplot teaches Gratiano a lesson in loyalty. The relationship between Nerissa and Portia is a positive model of friendship.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The themes of friendship and loyalty play out in interesting ways in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, leaving the audience to figure out for themselves which is more important: a friend or a lover?

The relationship between Nerissa and Portia offers opportunities to analyze the intersection of loyalty and friendship as they confide in each other details about their husbands. By sharing with each other the negative qualities of Bassanio and Gratiano, they are demonstrating friendship towards each other, though at the expense of their husbands. Similarly, the men also place their friendship on a high pedestal, as evidenced by Antonio's willingness to give his own flesh for Bassanio.

These examples suggest that friendship is the more powerful force, and such a notion is reinforced by incidents in the play that demonstrate fractures in the love relationships. Portia confronts Bassanio about giving away the ring that symbolizes their relationship; to Portia, Bassanio has shown extreme disloyalty to her by treating the ring so casually as to give it away. Nerissa is just as angry with Gratiano for his mistake, for the same reason.

Though friendship and loyalty can exist between lovers, the loyalty the friends show each other is far more impressive than the loyalty they show their romantic partners. Perhaps Shakespeare is commenting on the fallibility of romance and marriage in this context, encouraging the audience to protect their friendships well.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As mentioned in the other answer, the chief example of friendship in The Merchant of Venice is between Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio's willingness to risk himself to lend Bassanio the money he needs to court Portia is a sign of friendship.

Portia and Nerissa are another example of friendship. While their relationship is unequal because Portia is the mistress and Nerissa the maid, they speak to each other as friends, openly and intimately. For instance, Portia complains to Nerissa about being weary of the world, but Nerissa has none of it, saying:

You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in
the same abundance as your good fortunes are.

Nerissa, in other words, reminds Portia that she is a privileged person with little to complain about.

Portia, bemoaning her fate in having to marry according to dead father's dictates, then says,

Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?

Nerissa, again, is not servile in her response. She says frankly and pragmatically that Portia should be grateful that her father provided for her. Later, she goes along with Portia's cross-dressing plot, and at the end of the play, she is glad to join Portia in the final trick they play on the men. It is consistent with Portia's secure, generous, and down-to-earth character that she would not lord over her maid but would make her a friend and rely on her good sense.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of friendship and loyalty in The Merchant of Venice is represented on many levels and by many characters, but the most pronounced representatives of it are Antonio and Bassanio, who represent both friendship and loyalty. Antonio and Bassanio have a deep and genuine friendship that even extends to honest representations of information that others may receive a falsified idea of. Specifically, Antonio at first protests that he is not concerned about his ships because he has money invested in more places than his ships, so if they are delayed in or prevented from returning with their cargos of imports, Antonio won't be financially ruined.

However, when Bassanio comes to ask his assistance, Antonio tells him the truth as he says that everything he has depends uopn the safe return of his ships, so much so that he sends Bassanio to the marketplace to secure a loan in Antonio's name for the three tousand ducats that Bassanio needs. And speaking of Bassanio, he too displays the true picture of his situation. He says there is a chance he can marry a very wealthy woman and therefore needs money, of which he has none, to make a good showing of himself; in other words, he confides in Antonio that he doesn't want to look like the penniless, shiftless, fortune-hunter that he is. Only people with deep friendships confide truths like these to each other. As to their loyalty, Antonio pledges his flesh to help Bassanio, and Bassanio wishes to be able to sacrifice himself, his new wife, and all her wealth to be able to save Antonio from the court's ruling in favor of Shylock's claim stemming from the forfeited repayment of the money as required by the loan contract.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team