‘The Merchant of Venice’ is much more than just a play about money lending. The most evident theme of money lending binds together the many other themes that run strongly throughout this play by William Shakespeare. Whichever is the main theme is open to the audience’s interpretations. In the Elizabethan period people were very anti-Semitic. The audience back then would not have been shocked at the brutal, disgusting and unjust way in which that Shylock was treated continuously throughout the play.
For instance Shylock was not given his own identity, in the play he was mostly referred to just as”The Jew”. In our diverse world today there would be no tolerance for such anti-Semitic treatment. Shakespeare had modern thoughts and an advanced understanding for his time. He showed this in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by breaking the literary tradition and giving the Jew a main role on stage. Not only that but Shakespeare created pathos for him and gives the Jew dignity and humanity. He also gives Shylock a sense of universality, an example of this is the line “If you prick us, do we not bleed? .
Shakespeare tried to make the audience think about the person rather than the figure. It is more than just a play about money-lending; love is another theme that runs through the play though is linked closely to money-lending. It is because of Bassanio’s affection, or romantic love for Portia, that he comes to Antonio for money. He also comes to Antonio because of friendship love which is shown in this quote “To you, Antonio, I owe you the most in money and in love… “. Those are two different types of love shown in this play that are expressed through the characters relationships.
Another is parental love expressed by Portia with the caskets, where she obeys and respects her father’s wishes in choosing a husband. In contrast, Jessica shows little loyalty and love towards her father, Shylock. “Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed/ I have a father, you a daughter lost. “. This rhyming couplet is used to describe her abandoning Shylock to run away with Lorenzo and denying her religion. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a comedy. After all, in the play no one gets killed and it ends with several marriages and on a rather ‘humorous’ comment from Gratiano.
Also there are comical scenes with Jessica, Portia and Nerissa – this is because male actors in Shakespearean times would have to play female roles and in the play (back then it was not seen suitable for girls or women on the stage) and this meant the male actors would be playing women who were playing men, Portia as Balthazar and Nerissa the serving man/messenger. In these parts lots of dramatic irony is involved such as when Nerissa says, “Ay, if a woman live to be a man. “.
This is ironic and funny due to the fact she is a woman who did dress up and “live to be a man. To trick her husband and everyone else. This is also part of an entwined theme, called appearance and reality, where some things are not as they seem. The audience are aware of the disguises and deception going on whilst some characters do not, thus creating dramatic irony as we, the audience know more. At the end of the play the deception may be seen as being took too far and developed by Portia and Nerissa where they trick and test their husbands about their wedding rings which were ‘given away’, even after what they were put through, worrying for Antonio’s life.
However ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a different comedy that challenges the audience in ways that no other Shakespearean comedy does. This is why it can be seen as a dark comedy or a problem play. The play is lifted up to that new level due to the structure of the play where the nature of good and evil are challenged; there are no characters that are all bad or all good. For example the flawed heroine, Portia, due to her deceit and tricking, and the cold yet sympathetic ‘villain’ Shylock. Furthermore ‘The Merchant of Venice’ features the strong theme of revenge which is most evidently displayed by Shylock.
He wants to “The villainy you teach me I will execute” As the play goes on Shylocks hunger for revenge escalates due to how poorly he has been treated because of his religion. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! ” This sentence shows that he feels it is right to get revenge and that Christians are hypocritical about their mercy and that they would want revenge if it was the other way around.
One by one Shylock loses everything, starting with his own anti-Semitic servant Lancelot. Soliloquy is used effectively by the servant to show his thoughts and feelings; “… for I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer”. In the climatic court scene, his dire need for revenge is expressed through graphic language and imagery where Shylock has the scales for measuring the pound of flesh “Nearest his heart” and has no surgeon, ready to help, as he “cannot find it… “.
In the film version of ‘The Merchant of Venice (2004)’ the courtroom scene was acted out very well as you could sense the amount of tension and climax from watching the dramatic pauses and Al Pacino doing a great portrayal of Shylock, sharpening the knife to cut Antonio’s flesh. In the end, Shylock does not get his revenge and the only important thing he has left gets taken away – his religion. Another of the themes is religion. This theme runs very strongly throughout the play, without religion this play would be very different. In the Shakespearean times no Christians were allowed to lend money.
Jews were the only ones who were allowed to practise usury; this was due to the fact they were forbidden to own property and work in most businesses so they needed a way of making money. Those of Jewish faith were cruelly treated in that period of time. “Fair sir, you spat on me”/”You called me a dog”. Shylock had to put up with horrendous treatment and taunts like that from Christians such as Antonio and Gratiano because of his religion. Lastly, other than money lending, the play beholds a central theme about justice and mercy, which is key to ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
In the play a lot is heard about mercy. This is held up as an ideal; especially in Portia’s important speech – “The quality of mercy is not strained/ it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven… “. This metaphor is used well as an extended image of mercy giving off an emotional effect. In Elizabethan times Portia would have been seen representing the Christian idea of mercy where they should ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than be overcome with revenge for the person who has wronged them like Shylock has for Antonio. Shylock’s view of justice is the opposite; it is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.
In the court room scenes at the end of the play when Portia makes her persuasive speech about mercy and tries to get Shylock to be merciful towards Antonio and the bond, he misses the chance and then Portia shows her greater knowledge of the law by turning Shylocks own bond on him. She emphasises that Shylock shall have “all justice”. Portia then does not let him back out of the deal saying, “He shall have merely justice and his bond. “. Having pleaded with Shylock to show mercy, she then seems less merciful than him. In conclusion there is much more to ‘The Merchant of Venice’ than money lending.
There are several different themes that add their own characteristic to the play and they are deeply entwined with each other to construct this play. For example, religion plays an important role throughout the play as if each of the characters had stayed true to their respective religion, like Jessica (although this was made difficult for Shylock) there would have been not as much or no conflict to tell of. The play also uses contrasting themes of revenge and love, which also link into the main theme of religion to create a very mixed view of each religion and in particular the loyalty, or lack of, shown to it.
Dramatic irony is also effectively used in the play to create humour, with the audience linking the gender of the actors to quotes such as “Ay, if a woman live to be a man. “. Overall the play is made up of a variety of themes that all complement each other. Contrasting themes of love and revenge and religion and conflict all help to get Shakespeare’s’ messages across – money lending just seems to be the storyline to bring them all together.