Merchant of Venice Themes

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Themes in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

1. The nature of love, marriage and friendship.

▪ Shakespeare’s romantic comedies usually lead up to and end with marriages, including one noble marriage and this is true in this text. The suitor loves and serves his lady; but after marriage the wife loves and serves the husband. As soon as Bassanio has chosen rightly, Portia calls him Lord: ‘her Lord, her governor, her king,’ (Act 3, scene 2) adding ‘Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted.’ Portia behaves throughout as an ideal daughter and wife, according to the ideals of the day.

▪ A letter now arrives announcing Antonio’s ruin. Bassanio tells Portia, ‘I have engaged myself to a dear friend’ (Act 2, scene 2.) Due to his love for Antonio, he even offers his own life: ‘The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all / Ere thou shalt lose me one drop of blood.’ Portia offers her fortune: what was hers is his; and what is his is Antonio’s. The wedding takes place offstage. Bassanio’s love for Portia makes him extremely reluctant to part with her ring, and he does so only when pressed by Antonio (the fact that Portia finally forgives Bassanio for parting with her ring emphasises that love and forgiveness are superior to self-centred greed). The Renaissance ideal of noble friendship between men is less familiar than the ideal of marriage.

▪ Ideal male friendship is a theme of Renaissance writing; it is called Platonic because it was first found in the ‘Phaedrus’ of Plato, whose works were revived at the Renaissance. Antonio’s unconditional love for Bassanio is of this kind, a term which may mean their relationship is more of either an adopted father or a godson. It is remarkable when we think of their relationship that neither Portia nor Antonio show any jealousy of the other’s love for Bassanio, although Antonio’s sadness remains.

▪ In another sense the play is a demonstration of the triumph of love and friendship over...
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