The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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How does The Merchant of Venice demonstrate contrasts?

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The play of contrasts is on full display in The Merchant of Venice. The setting, the characters, and the plot itself all demonstrate the stark contrast between Romanticism and Pragmatism.

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Shakespeare relies mainly upon his two setting in Merchant of Venice to demonstrate the conflict and contrast between Romanticism and Pragmatism.  Belmont is the fairy-tale island, isolated from the hum-drum of every day business dealings.  It includes riddles and marriage and playfulness.  In contrast, Venice exemplifies the tedious business dealings...

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in life and the fulfillment of the letter of the law (in the Duke's court).  In Venice, daughters betray their fathers; minorities are insulted; revenge is sought; and "justice" is enacted (without genuine mercy).  In Belmont, loose ends are tied up, new marriages move past early misunderstandings, and the truth is revealed.

Another contrast is, of course, the clash between Shylock's worldview and the Venetians.  Shakespeare uses this conflict to shed light on the inequality of justice for certain groups of people versus the elite. 

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In the play 'The Merchant of Venice' by William Shakespeare, the author shows us a contrast of cultures and another contrast of religions. Religion and culture are of course, very interwoven. 'The quality of mercy' which 'is not strain'd' was always held up to be a key attribute of Christianity - and Shylock of course was not a Christian but belonged to a persecuted minority - the Jewish community. In Christianity, this quality is deemed to be shown from the top down, with Jesus Christ himself showing mercy even up to the last minute on the cross of his execution at Calvary. He tells the criminal that he will join him in paradise. However, he shows mercy and forgivenesss to this sinner for a reason - and that reason is that the sinner showed penitence and was sorry. The contrast with Judaism and Shylock is that the latter felt he had nothing to be sorry about, and therefore did not try to save himself by showing penitence. The old biblical sayiong 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' was meted out to him.

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How is The Merchant of Venice a play of contrast?

Perhaps the starkest contrast in the play is between Shylock and the society around him. He is a Jewish moneylender whose values go against those espoused by Venetian Christians. Others often note Shylock’s ethnicity; Salarino remarks, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers [Shylock’s daughter Jessica’s] than between jet and ivory.” Antonio is a Christian who looks down on the way Jews make a living because he opposes charging interest on borrowed money. He supposedly believes in charity and “lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usance.”

Antonio and others consider this generosity to be a Christian value. In comparison, Shylock is stingy and persnickety. He is also far more puritanical than the young Catholics and their “shallow foppery.” Unlike Antonio, who seems to forgive at least Bassanio of anything, Shylock forgives Antonio of nothing, even if it means taking his life. When the tables turn, the duke pardons Shylock and emphasizes “the difference of our spirits,” likely suggesting that he is expressing the true spirit of Christianity. Portia also gives a rousing speech about mercy, which Shylock does not seem to possess. Antonio forgives Shylock as well.

One contrast that often sticks with audiences is the difference between the characters’ behavior and the way they view themselves. Antonio forces Shylock to convert to Christianity, an act that does not seem particularly merciful. Also, the constant taunting of Shylock hardly seems compassionate. On top of that, the duke urges Shylock to bend for Antonio, but he refuses to bend the law for Antonio’s sake. It is difficult to see a huge moral contrast between Shylock’s clever malevolence and the Christians’ callous sanctimony.

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In The Merchant of Venice, how does Shakespeare present contrast in the play?

There are many contrasts present in The Merchant of Venice. There is Shylock , the Jewish moneylender

a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh,

and Antonio, a Christian who appears to extol the virues of mercy and compassion but who in fact can be self-serving and not Christian-like in his disdain for Shylock. The contradictory behavior compicates the way in which the  

characters display an impulse to categorize one another on the basis of religious and racial characteristics.

Then there is Portia and her problems with her looming marriage, forced upon her by her late father whom she feels she must obey, in keeping with filial loyalty. Yet, she turns out to be a strong character who will actually save the day for all concerned.

Bassonio is a conflicted persona and although he starts off wanting to marry Portia for her money, ultimately he comes to understand the value of honesty and true worth

Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
                                                                                                                Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;

Justice and mercy are both admirable attributes but the contrast between them is never more obvious than in The Merchant of Venice. The Old Testament and therefore the belief of the Jews, holds justice as paramount whereas the New Testament with its forgiveness and compassion is indicative of Christianity. Both however are

 righteous.

It is something of a paradox then that

it is not through mercy that Antonio is freed but through the legal wrangling of Portia. 

Read the eNotes study guide and navigate to the various topics which will help you to an understanding of the compexities of The Merchant of Venice.

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