William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy about the efforts of a Venetian merchant to assist his best friend in his quest to marry a beautiful heiress. In return, the merchant is saved from a ruthless moneylender by the couple he helps.
Antonio is the Venetian merchant who is troubled at the opening of the play. He is saddened by the fact that his friend Bassanio is planning to leave Venice for the distant region of Belmont where he hopes to marry Portia. Bassanio is deeply in debt, and in order to make the trip to Belmont, he asks Antonio for a loan to finance his journey. He believes that once he gains access to Portia’s wealth, he will be able to repay Antonio. Antonio does not have the funds on hand because his merchant ships are out to sea, so he arranges a loan from Shylock, a vengeful moneylender who hates Antonio for a variety of reasons. Shylock agrees to the loan with the outrageous provision that failure to repay it in a timely fashion will entitle him to a pound of Antonio’s flesh:
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Since Venice is a modern, bustling sixteenth-century city, its legal system is formal and rigid. In such an atmosphere, Shylock is able to take advantage of Antonio with intolerable contract terms for repayment of his loan. Belmont is quite different. Distant from the main city, Belmont’s rules for governing everyday life are not based on strict legal structure. Accordingly, Portia’s late father has established the parameters in which his daughter is allowed to marry based on a “casket game.” Wealthy suitors calling for Portia’s hand in marriage would have to choose from three caskets to determine their worthiness. One casket is made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold one, only to find inside a poem reading, “All that glisters is not gold.” The Prince of Arragon chooses the silver one and finds a picture of a “blinking idiot” inside. Both princes depart in shame. Bassanio chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand in marriage.
Back in Venice, Antonio discovers his ships are lost at sea, and he cannot repay the loan to Shylock, who demands his pound of flesh. Unlike the law in Belmont, the Venetian court of justice must decide Antonio’s fate. The duke presiding over the trial has no choice but to uphold the brutal terms of the moneylender’s contract. To save Antonio, Portia disguises herself as Balthazar, a lawyer, and defends Antonio with a clever scheme by arguing that Shylock’s motives were evil and a violation of Venice’s strict laws. Antonio prevails and all is well.
In this play, Shakespeare demonstrates the difference in the values between rural Belmont and urban Venice. In Belmont, wealth is used for the benefit of friendship, and love is considered the most valuable element of human life. In Venice, Shylock personifies the greed existent in city commerce, and he values wealth above all else. At the time of this play, Venice was the commercial capital of Europe. Shakespeare contrasts the love of money in the city with friendship and romantic love. One might conclude that the playwright is telling his audience that the quest for wealth is actually robbing the world of joy.