The Merchant of Venice Themes

The main themes in The Merchant of Venice are mercy versus justice, interpretation, and prejudice and anti-Semitism.

  • Mercy versus justice: The principles of mercy and justice are shown to be at odds. While Shylock seeks justice through the fulfillment of his contact, Portia and the other characters call for mercy instead.
  • Interpretation: The play contains numerous instances in which the act of interpretation proves central to the action and to the fates of the characters.
  • Prejudice and anti-Semitism: The play reflects the prejudicial attitudes towards Jewish people and other minorities in 16th century Europe.

Themes

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Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971

Mercy versus Justice

As the play progresses, the question of what constitutes justice becomes more and more prominent. In the past, Shylock has been wronged by Antonio, and in act 3, he insinuates that revenge is a just action. Shylock holds the idea that one receives what one gets, and his intended revenge is one version of this kind of justice. The fact that Antonio loses his ships throughout the play provides even more evidence to Shylock that Antonio deserves his penalty for defaulting on the loan, and Shylock is all too eager to dispense the corresponding punishment. 

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Further, justice is a function of the law, which seems to be Shylock’s primary argument in act 4; as long as the contract is honored, justice will be served. In this way, Shylock’s insistence in taking Antonio’s flesh is doubly just: not only does it serve the karmic function of returning the cruelty that Antonio had previously shown Shylock, but it is also legally stipulated that he should take Antonio’s flesh. Throughout the trial, he continues to appeal to justice as his rationale for following through with the contract. 

However, the opposing claim—that mercy is greater than justice—is also argued throughout the play, especially in act 4. The first time mercy is referred to in the play is when Launcelot speaks with Jessica in act 3, telling her that there is no mercy in heaven for her kind. When Portia speaks of the divine qualities of mercy in act 4, it seems as though she is at least partly responding to Launcelot’s claim. 

Mercy, she argues, does not follow the logic of kings, laws, and justice. Were that the case, Shylock might be killed—or at least ruined—by the end of the play. In fact, it is Shylock’s claims to justice that ultimately prevents him from getting his way; that is, while he is legally and justly allowed to take the pound of flesh, Portia asserts that he has no just claim to any blood that may fall during the transaction. Through this outcome, the play privileges mercy over justice.

Interpretation

Throughout the play, Shakespeare calls attention to the variable nature of interpretation. The play contains numerous instances in which a statement or situation presents multiple interpretations, resulting in complexity and conflict. In many cases, these instances produce a comedic effect. For instance, Launcelot’s puns at the end of act 3 frustrate Lorenzo, because he cannot seem to convey the simple idea to the clown that he wants to eat dinner. We also see how context can influence interpretation; in act 5, Lorenzo and Jessica, as well as Portia and Nerissa, describe the ways that certain attitudes and environments may affect the ways that one interprets the beauty of music. Taste, then, relies on ever-shifting interpretations that may change within one individual given their state of mind or location.

While these puns and discussions of music offer comedy and levity, the act of interpreting also carries heavier implications. It is, for instance, an interpretation of the Bible through which Shylock justifies his charging of interest, and this leads to a dispute between himself and Antonio. The test for Portia’s hand is an act of interpretation—those who do not correctly interpret the engravings on each chest are doomed to leave and never marry. It is arguably interpretation that leads to the dispute about rings at the end of the play; neither Bassanio nor Gratiano understood the meaning behind the rings that their respective wives gave them. Finally, it is through interpretation of a legal document that Antonio is saved by Portia. Indeed, while interpretation can be a playful act, it has weighty implications. For Antonio, it determines whether he will live or die. For Portia, Bassanio, and the other suitors, it determines their romantic prospects. For Shylock, it determines the justice—or lack thereof—he receives.

Prejudice and Anti-Semitism

It is difficult to ignore the prejudice that appears in The Merchant of Venice, because prejudice is at the heart of the play’s conflict. Shylock’s statement that he hates Antonio because Antonio is a Christian is perhaps the first example, but we learn shortly after that Antonio has also wronged Shylock, largely because he is Jewish. Throughout the play, the Christian characters attribute Shylock’s motives and choices to his Jewish identity, almost always in a derogatory manner. We see another Jew, Tubal, being treated similarly. The theme of prejudice also appears in Portia’s treatment of the Prince of Morocco; we have little reason to believe that he has bad intentions, but she dismisses him as a result of the darkness of his skin. 

It is through this theme that the play conveys a lesson about tolerance and breaking from biases. While Shylock is framed as an antagonist throughout the play, his own cruelty, he claims, was learned from Christians, and he argues that he is only paying them back for wrongs done to him. In the face of the prejudices against him, he points out that Jews are just like other human beings and that it is unfair to think of them differently. 

The resolution of the play’s conflict—the result of the court case in act 4—can be read in two different ways as regards the theme of prejudice. On the one hand, the duke and Antonio’s supposedly merciful treatment of Shylock can be read as patronizing. By demonstrating the divine principle of mercy after Shylock’s case has been dramatically turned against him and forcing him to convert to Christianity, they remain entrenched in anti-Semitic prejudice. On the other hand, that the duke and Antonio do not choose the gravest possible punishment for Shylock can be read as an act of good faith in which prejudice is set aside to some degree.

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