The Merchant of Venice Themes at a Glance

  • In The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s mercy and compassion are contrasted with Shylock’s greed.

  • Antonio and Shylock represent two different economic principles: Antonio lends his money interest-free, while Shylock exemplifies the practice of usury that became more popular during Shakespeare’s time.

  • The shallow love of Arragon and Morocco stands as a contrast to Bassanio’s authentic love for Portia.

  • The two outsiders in the story, Portia and Shylock, serve to point to the hypocrisy and hatred that characterize Venice.

  • “Flesh” is used as a leitmotif in the play to symbolize marriage and distinguish between Shylock’s materialism and Jessica’s spiritualism.

Themes

As in many of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice is constructed around opposite value systems or worldviews. One pole of this scale is captured in one of the most famous of the Bard's verse speeches as it is recited, fittingly enough by the epitome of Christian generosity, Portia, during the climactic trial of Act IV, scene i. In borrowed lawyer robes, Portia proclaims:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
`Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his own crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above the sceptered sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
(IV.i.184-197).

The speech captures the core of Shakespeare's message, mercy is close to God in both human action (or "flesh") and in spirit. It is love of one's friends, compassion for those in difficulty and a willingness to forgive past wrongs that humanity achieves a humble, reverence for God's will.

The contours of this Christian value system are thrown its strongest relief by the presentation of an alternative outlook on life, and it is through the dark eyes of Shylock that this foil to enlightenment is presented, in flesh and in spirit. Right before Portia's mercy speech, the Duke of Venice highlights the contrast between "Christian" mercy and the moneylender's stance by describing Shylock as "A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram or mercy" (IV.i.4-6). We, of course, know this, for Shylock (like Shakespeare's Iago, Richard the III, and other villains) has already apprised us of his hard-heartedness and hateful materialism. In Act I, scene iii, when we encounter the Jewish moneylender for the first time, Shylock discloses his hatred for Antonio and his evil nature in an aside that runs:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more, for in that low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rates of usance here in Venice.
If I can catch him upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him!
(I.iii.41-52).

In his own interpretation of the enmity that he harbors toward Antonio, personal greed and racial/religious bias are intermingled, and so our attention is brought to Shylock as the stereotypical Jew. In a Christian society like Shakespeare's Elizabethan England, Jews, being bereft of baptism and subject to circumcision, were popularly viewed as being outside God's grace. Throughout the play, there are some direct associations between Shylock and the ungodly or Satanic, as in Jessica's first speech where she says that "Our house is hell … " (II.iii.2). As often, and on a meaner note, Shylock is frequently portrayed as a subhuman canine. Thus, for instance, during the trial scene (IV.i), Gratiano calls Shylock a "damn'd execrable dog" and then adds that the Jewish usurer's "curish spirit" is "governed by a wolf" (IV.i.128, 134).

Owing to a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment in late-sixteenth century England, Shakespeare's audiences were familiar with stereotypically evil Jews on stage, these dramatic characters resonating with the Judas figure of medieval Passion Plays. Less than a decade before Shakespeare first staged The Merchant of Venice, his rival, the revenge-tragedy dramatist Christopher Marlowe, wrote The Jew of Malta (1589), a very popular work dominated by the evil Jewish moneylender Barabas. The Merchant of Venice frankly taps into anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish attitudes. Nevertheless, Shakespeare does not endorse racial/religious prejudices, as is plain enough from Portia's acceptance of...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)