In the Merchant of Venice, what do Antonio’s ships indicate about his position in Venetian society?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the history of Venice, the international trade was handled by the patricians, or old nobility of the state. That Shakespeare created a realistic grouping in his Merchant of Venice is evinced in Francisco Apellániz's historical account, Venetian Trading Networks. In this, he writes that the ship owners were the patricians and they owned the largest share of Venice's investment in oriental goods and spices. Then, after this old nobility, known as the Serenissima, Apellániz observed that there were

Ten lower-rank Venetians and even two Jews—the category of Venetian subjects who suffered the most discrimination...at the top of the 1418 to 1420 list. 
 
So, realistically,then, Antonio is a wealthy man who does not need to lend money for profit as does Shylock. Instead, Antonio lends money out of generosity and to keep friends from having to pay usurers' fees. The problem arises with Bassanio's need to borrow money because Antonio's friend has asked when Antonio has so much invested in his ships and has little free money on hand.
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