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In “Merchant Of Venice"

Updated on September 30, 2010

Which of the themes in the Merchant Of Venice did you find the most interesting?


The exact date of William Shakespeare's birth is not known, his baptism occurred on Wednesday, April 26, 1564. On November 28, 1582, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway entered into a marriage contract. The baptism of their eldest child, Susanna, took place in Stratford in May 1583. One year and nine months later, their twins, Hamnet and Judith, were christened. At the height of Shakespeare’s career as a writer between 1589 and 1612 he wrote over 30 plays and a 100 sonnets, and was part owner of the Globe theatre. He died on April 23, 1619. His body lies within the chancel and before the altar of the Stratford church. The inscription carved upon his tombstone reads:

Good Friend, for Jesus' sake, forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here;

Blest be the man that spares these stones

And curst be he that moves my bones.


The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy and as a problem play, written sometime between 1596 and 1598,and is set in two locations Venice and Belmont. Venice is the centre of International trade making it a wealthy city, within a thriving community. It is there we meet Antonio, a shipping merchant and his friends Bassanio and Gratiano. Belmont on the other hand comes from Shakespeare’s imagination. Belmont is very female dominated and is where Portia lives, also it’s a wealthy city like Venice. This is a play in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved.



We are introduced to the world of Venice in the first scene. Venice is concerned almost solely with wealth and trade. Within this setting the themes revolve around , Love, Hatred , Greed and Racism.In scene 1 the love (friendship) between Antonio and Bassanio is apparent ,when  Bassanio comes to Antonio in this scene in order to borrow more money so that he can pursue Portia. Unfortunately, Antonio has no money to give him, but tells Bassanio to borrow upon his name, to get the credit that he needs. “Try what my credit can in Venice do”. This is where we are introduced to Shylock, from whom Bassanio requests the loan. Shylock, is a Jewish moneylender with whom Antonio is not on the best of terms. Antonio has criticized Shylock for usury, and Shylock, in turn, resents Antonio's generosity in loaning money out at no interest. “I hate him for he is a Christian,…He lends out money gratis, and brings down, The rates of usance here in Venice.” To get back at Antonio, Shylock proposes a bond that stipulates Antonio will forfeit “if you repay me not such a day,…a pound of flesh…”. Bassanio is reluctant butAntonio agrees to the terms of the bond, as he has absolute faith in his ventures, “In this there can be no dismay, my ships…before the day”.  Shylock agrees to lend them 3000 ducats, on the strength of the bond. Now all is not well in Venice, Lorenzo(a Christian), a friend of Bassanio and Antonio, elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. “My own flesh and blood to rebel, she is damned for it” This enrages Shylock, who vows to show no mercy should Antonio be unable to repay the loan. Much to the usurer’s delight, Antonio’s ships become lost at sea, placing him in financial jeopardy, and as a result gives Shylock the perfect opportunity to get revenge not only on Antonio but all Christians. Shylock has him arrested and waits eagerly to make good on the bond. “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit”. In his own interpretation of the hatred that he harbours toward Antonio, personal greed and racial/religious bias are intermingled, and so our attention is brought to Shylock as the stereotypical Jew.



Belmont on the other hand comes from Shakespeare’s imagination. Belmont is very female dominated; it’s a wealthy city like Venice. Belmont is a fairy tale world of ‘love’ and ‘romance’, and laughter which Shakespeare imagines it to be. It is a harmonious and tranquil city, with reference to racism at various points. The main concern of Belmont is quickly established as not the qualms of merchants but of a fathers love for his daughter. Love is the main theme in Belmont and dominates the conversations between Portia and Nerissa. An example of a comical innuendo can be found in The Merchant of Venice when Portia and Nerissa are discussing Portia’s past suitors using innuendos to tell of their sexual prowess: Portia: “I pray thee, …, I will describe them, …according to my …affection.” Nerrisa: First, there is the Neapolitan prince. Portia: “Ay, that’s a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse, and he makes it a great appropriation …can shoe himself. … his mother played false with the smith”. The “Neapolitan prince” is described as an inexperienced youth when Portia refers to him as a “colt.” The prince is thought to be inexperienced because he did nothing but “talk of his horse” (a pun for his penis) and his other great attributes. Portia goes on to say that the prince boasted that he could “shoe him (his horse) himself,” a possible pun meaning that the prince was very proud that he could masturbate. Finally, Portia makes an attack upon the prince’s mother, saying that “my lady his mother played false with the smith,” a pun to say his mother must have committed adultery with a blacksmith to give birth to such a vulgar man having an obsession with “shoeing his horse.” The prejudice towards others of a different culture is continued in Belmont. Portia dismisses the Prince of Morocco before even meeting him saying she would never marry him if his skin were black. “If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” In this statement Portia was saying she’d rather he heard her confession than marry her. Portia laments to her serving woman, Nerissa, the terms of her late father’s will. “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father” The will states that whoever seeks to marry Portia must solve the riddle of the three caskets—one gold, one silver, one lead, each with an inscription, or failing in the attempt, agree to remain a bachelor for the rest of his days. The prince of Morocco and the prince of Aragon choose respectively the gold, “All that glisters is not gold…” and the silver, “There be fools alive…” caskets and find only these mocking messages; Bassanio, whom she loves, selects the lead casket and wins her hand in marriage. Learning of Antonio’s misfortune, she offers twenty times the amount in gold to buy out Shylock, and goes to Venice disguised as a lawyer to resolve the issue herself. When Shylock refuses the money and rejects her plea for mercy, she smartly outwits him by arguing that he is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh but cannot shed any blood in obtaining it, thus saving Antonio and ruining Shylock.



Act IV,( scene 1) of The Merchant of Venice not only provides the climax of the play but also portrays all of its major themes. In this scene, the concepts of racism and justice combine to create the play's final results and to reinforce the points made through previous scenes. Racism is apparent in the scene from its onset. The duke, who is in pre-trial conversation with Antonio, calls Shylock “a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,/Uncapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy”. Shylock's inhumanity stems from his religion, and the implication throughout the scene is that, if Shylock were Christian, he would be more “human”. This idea is continued by Antonio when he begs everyone to stop pleading with Shylock: “I pray you think you question with the Jew…As seek to soften that—that which what's harder?—His Jewish heart”. Through a wave of metaphors, Antonio clearly describes Shylock as something less than human because of his “Jewish heart”, and renders him incapable of pity or understanding. The character who is most blatant in his racism against Shylock is Gratiano. As a result of his anger and resentment at Shylock's lack of mercy, Gratiano hurls several insults at Shylock, ranging from “harsh Jew” to “inexecrable dog”. He also extends Antonio's comparison between Shylock and a wolf: “Thy currish spirit/Govern'd a wolf…for thy desires/Are wolvish, bloody, starv'd, and ravenous”. Amidst his anger and racial prejudice, Gratiano is the only person in the courtroom who urges both the Duke and Antonio to have Shylock put to death immediately once the scenario at hand is resolved. It should be noted here that although it is never specifically mentioned in Act IV, scene 1, Shylock has conveyed racial prejudice opinions as well. We know from Act I, that from his first entrance into the play, Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, a point which helps to motivate Shylock towards revenge. Mentioning this in court would not be advantageous to Shylock in his suit, which is the reason that he never expresses his racist opinions.



Another theme that dominates Act IV, (scene 1) is mercy and justice. Shylock's reason for claiming his pound of flesh is that he demands the justice that should be provided to him through the bond. When the Duke asks Shylock how he can ever expect to have mercy if he does not give it, Shylock responds that he does not need mercy because he has justice on his side: “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” In this scene, Shylock demonstrates the view that justice and mercy are at odds with each other. For Shylock, having mercy means that he relinquishes justice, which he is not willing to do. This separation is marked as pagan; Shylock believes this because he is Jewish and not Christian. The Christian characters in the scene, however, believe that justice and mercy are not separate but must be linked, as supported by Portia's speech on the quality of mercy. When Shylock asks Portia why he must be merciful, Portia replies that mercy cannot be compelled because of its divine nature or greatness. This nature joins justice and mercy, just as it links the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it . Portia explains that not only does mercy have a divine nature, but it is also what makes monarchs great. This happens, Portia explains, because: “It is an attribute to God himself…/When mercy seasons justice”. In the Christian perspective represented by Portia, mercy is not only a part of justice, but it is its main aspect because God shows mercy in his Justice. Justice without mercy, then, becomes tyranny because it goes against divine nature. Portia makes a final point about mercy at the end of her speech: “Therefore, Jew,/…The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea”. In this part of her speech, Portia reminds Shylock that no one deserves salvation, and as such would never receive it without God's mercy, because if we hope and expect to receive mercy, then, we should express it to others. Unfortunately for Shylock, he refuses to accept this argument, and continues to demand “justice”. When Portia sees that her warning to Shylock will go unheeded, she proceeds to provide the interpretation of justice to everyone in the courtroom, whether or not they agree with it. Portia awards the consequences of the deed to Shylock, despite Bassanio's plea to “do a little wrong” in overturning Venetian law. Portia does not do this because it will provide a dangerous footing for other legal proceedings, which may result in unjust judgments later. She then carefully examines the bond, and stalls by allowing Antonio to say farewell to his friend. However, when Shylock attempts to take his pound of flesh, Portia informs him that the bond makes no provision for blood or for mistakes in measurement. If Shylock draws blood (which he must), or removes either too little or too much flesh, he will die because of the terms of Venetian law. Portia also informs Shylock that he has violated Venetian law by seeking the life of a citizen, and Shylock's life, lands, and goods are now forfeit to the state and to the victim Antonio. This ironic situation occurs because Shylock demands the letter of the law without the mercy that should accompany it, and his deeds are now “upon his head”, as he wished them to be earlier in the scene. Therefore Portia's warning about being merciful for the sake of needing mercy becomes reality, and it is Shylock who requires mercy by the end of the scene.



Although the Duke and Antonio can now take vengeance for Shylock's malicious attempt to take Antonio's life without giving mercy, the concerns of Christianity mitigate their actions. Upon hearing Portia's judgment that Shylock's life and goods are at the mercy of the state, the Duke takes a much different tack than Shylock: “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,/I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it/For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's;/The other half comes to the general state,/Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.” The Duke pardons Shylock even though Shylock has not asked for his mercy because the Duke has learned Portia's lesson about the greatness of mercy. The Duke also does not take half of Shylock's property out of mercy, although Shylock does not interpret it as such at the time. Antonio, however, does not render mercy to Shylock, but instead to his daughter Jessica and her husband Lorenzo. Instead of keeping his half of Shylock's property, he gives it to Lorenzo. He also asks the court to make Shylock convert to Christianity and to will his property at the end of his life to Lorenzo. Antonio, then, does punish Shylock for his paganism and malicious actions, but does so in a way that assists Jessica and Lorenzo and furthers the Christian theme of the play as would have been acceptable in Elizabethan times.



The play ends with an amusing interview between the disguised women and their lovers, together with the surrender of the rings, which promises further fun to come. Then we have the scene at Belmont—the gayest, happiest, most blessed scene in all of this Shakespearean play. Suddenly we are swept away from Venice, from its scorns, its hatreds and revenges, and transported to a world of magic in which men and women live like gods, without care, without toil, without folly, and without strife, except that of lovers. Here we see that Goodness does over-ride Evil, as the happy couples sort out their lives and there is much talk of marrying and giving in marriage. Belmont is not heaven; it’s a garden full of music and love, under the soft Italian night, with a gracious, stately mansion in the background. Amidst all of this Shylock and Antonio are still no further forward, lost in their own world of hatred and greed.



All of the themes portrayed in this play are very relevant in to-day’s society, and something which all of us have experienced in our life-time at one time or another.


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    • t.elia profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Northern Ireland

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      *jaw drops* WOW!!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Excellent analysis on the Merchant- it's a good play with some solid themes- I saw a production at the Royal exchange. Your hub reminded me of all the great dialogue but also the intermingled stereotypes and racism of the time! thanks again.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      This is an excellent synopsis and analysis of the "Merchant of Venice." I enjoyed reading it. Thank you!

    • t.elia profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Yes Billy he was, I also studied Merchant of Venice at school along with Macbeth but Henry 1V wasn't part of our curriculum in my time, showing my age

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      I studied Merchant of Venice at high school - Shylock was an evil little git wasn't he - the Belmont scene was very happy - not unlike Falstaff with Hal - another high school study :)

    • t.elia profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Northern Ireland

      I may well take up that challenge Carolina Muscle. Thanks for the positivity.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 

      8 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      wow.... nicely done... you've really done a nice job with this post. Hamlet next, please????? :-)


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