What are the differences between Belmont and Venice in The Merchant of Venice?

The significant differences between Belmont and Venice in The Merchant of Venice coincide with the settings that are characteristic of each town. The Italian port of Venice is a vibrant city, ripe with crowds, tourists, merchants, and foreign visitors. Belmont is a distant region with all the splendor of the Italian countryside. The stark differences affect the personalities and actions of the key players in the drama.

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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.

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Belmont and Venice represent what Shakespeare scholar David Bevington calls, in his edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, "two contrasting worlds." Venice represents the real world of commerce and corruption. It is a busy place, low and flat, most often shown in the glare of daylight. It is a man's world, ruled by business interests and the courts.

In contrast, Belmont is a magical mountain destination, an idealized world of love, reached from Venice by crossing water. It is dominated by women, though a male, Portia's dead father, has made his influence felt through the fairytale-like three caskets by which Portia's husband will be chosen. If Venice is a crowded, hurried place, Belmont, most often shown at night, is quiet and peaceful.

It could be argued that in disguising herself as man and defending Antonio in a Venetian court of law, Portia attempts to transport some of the sweet "quality of mercy" that characterizes Belmont into the stern patriarchy of Venice. 

 

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Shakespeare sets The Merchant of Venice in Venice and Belmont, which have similarities and several differences. One similarity seen in Act I Scene i is that both are places where people may be unhappy. Antonio is unhappy in Venice and he does not know why. He denies that it is his business or love that are making him unhappy. In Belmont, the first thing that Portia says is that she is "weary" of the world. She knows why she in unhappy: she can neither choose her husband nor refuse one she doesn't want.

The biggest differences between Venice and Belmont are that while money, buying and selling and a public marketplace are the backdrop of Venice, music, stars, trees, a gentle wind, splendor and couples in love are the backdrop of Belmont. To emphasize this, Shylock makes his deal, after Antonio has enraged him, in Venice, and Lorenzo and Jessica escape from Venice and go to Belmont to start a new life of love.

It is interesting to note that one of the last things we learn about Belmont is that Belmont is where a Jewish woman and a Christian man will be given by a Christian the wealth of a Jewish man. Belmont, a seemingly idyllic place where stars look like white gold, is where unity of man and woman, Christian and Jew, and restoration of worldly respect and goods to a Jew (the wealth Antonio will pass over to Jessica is her inheritance by right of birth, anyway) take place.

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