What are the changes in the main characters in The Merchant of Venice?

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iambic5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All of the characters have changed by the end of “The Merchant of Venice”. In fact, “The Merchant of Venice” could be framed as a play about what happens to you and how you change after you get your heart’s desire: most of these characters start out wanting something or someone in the first part of the play and by the end they get what they want. Unfortunately for them, it does not always bring them the sort of happiness and fulfillment that they may have thought it would. Bassanio wants money in the first scene, because ultimately he wants to win Portia, and he wins both Portia and all the money he could ever need. Portia is in love with Bassanio and needs him to win the “casket challenge”, then later wants to help him rescue his friend. The challenge and the rescue work out well too. Antonio puts his life on the line for Bassanio, a gamble that almost costs him his life but ends up not only working but also winning him far more money than he ever risked. Gratiano and Nerissa are interested in each other from their first meeting, and by the end they are married. Lorenzo and Jessica take tremendous risks to be together and Jessica even converts to Christianity for his sake. By the end, yep, they’ve successfully beaten the odds and are going to live happily ever after…

But hold on, is that really it? Act 5 of this play is interesting because it shows us the first few moments that come right after “happily ever after”. They’ve all gotten what they want, but there’s some testiness and strain on all of the relationships: Jessica begins to worry about her father and the life she left behind and she and Lorenzo are a bit on the outs. Bassanio and Gratiano both utterly failed to keep one simple promise to each of their wives and the wives’ disappointment is palpable. By helping the friend he loves most in the world, Antonio has lost him, and it’s unclear what he will do with himself now. They all experience an amount of loss and disappointment that is new to them and must figure out how to cope.

All this is contrasted with the fate of Shylock, who perhaps changes most of all, but who goes on an utterly different journey in the play. Shylock starts out on top but his life is destroyed by his interaction with the Venetians. He starts the play wealthy and secure and ends up impoverished, broken, and stripped of his identity and religious faith in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the happy if uneasy fates of the other characters. The bitter awareness of his change of fortunes haunts the last act for the audience.