Shakespeare'sThe Merchant of Veniceis certainly a play characterized by ambivalence with, for one thing, the difficulty of interpreting in modern times the intent of Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock and the coexistence in Venice of Antonio and Shylock. Despite this acknowledged ambivalence, renowned Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom insists "The Merchant of Venice essentially is a romantic comedy," and Shylock is "a comic villain." As a villain, it is problematic, however, that Shylock would convert to Christianity and say that he is "content" to do so. Otherwise he is villainous: he charges exorbitant interest if he can; he is more upset about losing his money and jewels than about losing his daughter; he exacts a sadistic penalty from Antonio for failure to repay his loan. Shylock is, indeed, formidable when he faces the Duke of Venice and demands his bond:
I have possessed your Grace of what I purpose,And by our holy Sabbath have I swornTo have the due and forfeit of my bond.If you deny it, let the danger lightUpon your charter and your city's freedom!You'll ask me why I rather choose to haveA weight of carrion flesh than to receiveThree thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,But say it is my humor. Is it answered? (4.1.36-44)
With Shylock as the villain, the protagonist is, therefore, the heroic person who defeats this villain; namely, Portia. For, the play is truly Portia's as the romantic element centers around her with the caskets her father has left for her suitors set against her love for Bassanio and her refusal to have her will curbed, as well as in her clever disguise as a lawyer in order to defend Antonio in an superbly convincing and eloquent speech that defeats Shylock in the best known passage of the play as well as the statement of theme:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd;It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath. It is twice blest:It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomesThe throned monarch better than his crown. (4.1.186-192)
A final argument for Portia's being the protagonist and not Antonio is that Portia dominates the final act and again exhibits her cleverness and superiority in retaining the final word and the right to upbraid her husband.
Yet, Portia is flawed just as Antonio is flawed, underscoring again the ambivalence of this drama. For, they both fail to exhibit Christian charity at all times. Antonio hypocritically maligns Shylock for his profession which is also his own, and he refuses to show mercy to Shylock at the end; Portia is also unChristian in her remarks about her suitors, especially the Moroccan, to whom she bids "good riddance" along with all those of dark complexions. Like Antonio, she does not extend mercy to Shylock despite her having just argued for it to the court--"Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture,/To be so taken at any peril, Jew"(4.1.343-344).