The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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What are the themes of The Merchant of Venice?

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Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a famous play that deals with romance, business, and virtue. This comedy constructs an intricate connection between romance as well as ideas of tolerance and charity in addition to the typical comedic aspects of the play.

One of the major themes in the play is mercy, with Portia having an entire monologue famously delivered on the subject. Antonio, having defaulted on a loan, is attempting to gain mercy from his creditor and needs to humanize himself by showing the pain he is caused by trying to resolve his issues.

Another theme is the idea of respect and dignity. Antonio works through his antisemitic opinions in the beginning of the play to gain respect for his fellow man and creditor, Shylock.

A final theme throughout the play is the idea of value. Obviously, money has value throughout the story, but other material objects become embedded with value as well. Portia's hand is valued, even to the point that her potential suitors are willing to undergo a challenge in order to win her. This symbolically affords her with immense worth. Additionally, the "interest" on Antonio's loan early in the story is a pound of his flesh, essentially putting a price on his physical pain—showing what value it has for his creditors.

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One further theme you might like to consider is how hate begets hate. As a Jew, Shylock is a member of a persecuted minority, subjected to official discrimination and personal hatred on a daily basis. Yet his response to this hate is more hate, a bitter hatred leveled against all Christians for the sufferings of himself and his people.

This helps to explain Shylock's sheer vindictiveness, why he insists on demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio even though he knows it will do him no good. Shylock is so eaten up by hate, a hate that is itself a reaction to the hatred to which he himself has been subjected his whole life, that this normally shrewd businessman is no longer thinking of what's in his best interests. Such is the power of hate. It makes people do things they really shouldn't do. It has a terrible dynamic all of its own—one that cannot be stopped once it's been unleashed.

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The primary theme of The Merchant of Venice is the relationship between compassion and justice. This theme is best demonstrated by “the quality of mercy” speech that Portia gives while disguised as an attorney. On the other side is Shylock’s behavior as he attempts to exact payment by the latter not the spirit of a contract. Shylock also invokes the need for empathy and compassion as he asks in his monologue, “If you prick us do we not bleed?”

Another important theme is the duty of a child to their parent: Portia follows her father’s rules for choosing a husband, although she does not believe they are the best method, and by doing so ends up with the correct partner. The alternate attitude is that of Jessica, who defies her father and not only elopes with Lorenzo but also steals from her father and changes her religion. Shylock is forced to exercise compassion and mercy in dealing with her and her husband.

The general question of value is also important. The character of Shylock stands out for his excessive love of money—an often-critiqued stereotypical presentation of the association between Jews and usury. The method of the suitors’ choosing among the caskets also bears out this theme; because people are commonly “deceived with ornament,” the correct choice is lead, not the obvious ones of gold and silver.

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How are the themes of love, possession, and commerce addressed in The Merchant of Venice?

Love is addressed many ways, including love of a parent and a child and romantic love. The issue of Portia's father and the method he used for getting her a husband after his death doesn't sound very loving to our modern ears, and yet he was probably trying to choose a good man - someone who wouldn't be drawn to silver or gold. Portia didn't like this arrangement, yet out of love and respect for her father, she stuck to it. There is also the issue of Jessica's relationship with her father, and her obvious distaste for him. Then consider Shylock's reaction to her leaving - He alternates between mourning for his "daughter" and his "ducats"! Which does he truly love? Also consider the love (passion) Bassanio and Portia feel for each other, as well as that between Gratiano and Nerissa.

Possession is addressed almost the same way as love. In choosing which casket, each suitor is choosing a possession almost more than a potential wife. Jessica steals Shylock's possessions when she runs away from his home. Then, Shylock rejects the possessions offered him (2-3 times the amount of the bond) because what he really wanted was to be able to legally murder Antonio.

Commerce is a device around which everything revolves in this play. Antonio isn't worried about losing his pound of flesh because he's sure his ships will come in. When they don't, his life is almost forfeit. Shylock is more concerned with the loss of his fortune than the loss of Jessica.

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