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Merchant of Venice

By LaContessa88 Mar 04, 2014 2731 Words

The Merchant of Venice illustrates a clear discrepancy between the moral values of its Christian characters and those of Shylock; at last revealing favor for the mercy, generosity, love, and self-sacrifice of the Christians. Irrespective of the religious hypocrisy displayed by the Christians of the play, they ultimately prove the victors, while those who disregard the virtues of Christian doctrine suffer highly disagreeable consequences. Shylock, a miserly Jew and heartless usurer characterized by his greed, deception, and love of money, seems to have no concept of mercy or forgiveness. In his first aside, Shylock paints of himself a monstrous portrait establishing the nature of his character, when, in reference to Antonio, he asserts “I hate him for he is a Christian” (I, iii, 37) and resolutely concludes his speech with “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him” (I, iii, 46-47). Here, Shylock makes plain his unwillingness to forgive Antonio on the grounds that, by lending money freely, Antonio is detracting from his business. In contrast, Antonio, the Christian merchant and protagonist, is introduced as a selfless and charitable friend to Bassanio as he hazards to him an absurd quantity of money in a less than ideal circumstance. Without questioning the reason for Bassanio’s request, Antonio has already determined to give him all he desires, saying “Within the eye of honor, be assured/ My purse, my person, my extremest means/Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (I, i, 137-139). Antonio does not hesitate for an instant to sacrifice all of his material wealth for the benefit of a friend.

Antonio’s enthusiastic charity to Bassanio displays an apparent priority of friends over finance. Shylock’s priority is clearly the opposite, as can be observed from the following scenario: After learning of his daughter’s stealthy flight from his guardianship and her taking of jewels and ducats from his possession, Shylock reveals his true values: “Two thousand ducats in that and other precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot with the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot with the ducats in her coffin” (III, i, 73-76). This detestable response exhibits Shylock’s inhumanity. He cares so little for his own daughter that he values money over her well being. In reference to the same lines as seen above, Bernard Grebanier writes: “These shocking sentiments are scarcely in harmony with the long-suffering and loving paterfamilias of the sentimental school of critics. They are among the most horrifying sentences in literature” (Grebanier, 205). If no other instance in the play exhibits the polar opposition of sentiments between Shylock and the Christians, the aforementioned certainly does.

To understand the striking contrast between the actions and values of Shylock and those of the Christians, one must analyze the discrepancy in the cultural and religious backgrounds from which the characters arise. As Katherine Maus observes, “Antonio thinks he ought to lend money to friends as an act of charity, properly preformed as freely as God Himself dispenses grace” (Maus, 429). This observation acknowledges an adherence to Christian doctrine, in which Jesus requires his disciples to abandon everything they have to follow him. Self-sacrifice is simply expected of all good Christians, which explains why, as Maus puts it “the Christian demeanor is entrepreneurial, even reckless, the spiritual equivalent of what Antonio does with his ships or Bassanio does with the money he borrows from his friend” (Maus, 429). Shylock lives amidst a society in which he is shunned and denied the graces of friendship, which, in turn, causes his abrasive and hateful demeanor: a self-defense mechanism for the hand he is dealt. Maus notes the fact that Shylock is “unable to trust to love and generosity” so he “relies instead on contractually enforceable promises and networks of mutual material need” (Maus, 428). The Christians have incentive to be kind to one another, for friendship charity is their reward. Shylock, however, can rely upon nobody but himself for his well being, thereby making him an inevitably isolated, deceptive, and hateful character. One may astutely attribute the varying theological perspectives between Christians and non-Christians as an explanation for the opposition of choices made by both groups. When Morocco the Moor tries his fortune at the casket test, he reasons thusly: “Is it like that lead contains her? ‘Twere damnation/ to think so base a thought…/Or shall I think in silver she’s immured,/ Being ten times undervalued to tried gold?” (II, vii, 49-50,52-53). Morocco here concentrates on the outward appearances and evident worldly value of the caskets. The superficiality of his reasoning faculties, his failure to look beyond the corporeal, spells his failure. Aragon likewise fails to unveil the deeper meaning of the test, and, blinded by his own arrogance, chooses the silver casket upon which is inscribed ‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves’. Aragon, consumed by self-flattery, interprets the inscription to indicate his deserving Portia, a mistake that renders him a perpetual bachelor. It is only Bassanio, a man well acquainted with the Christian disposition of Portia’s father, who is able to detect the spiritual weight of the test. Being raised in a Christian climate, Bassanio has an immense advantage in undertaking a test designed by the mind of a fellow Christian. As Maus duly notes, a Renaissance Christian has ingrained into his being “a particular frame of mind that prefers invisible over visible things, spirit over body, metaphor over literal meaning. The same cultural background makes him willing to ‘hazard all he hath’ on the unprepossessing lead casket” (Maus, 430). It is the theology of his cultural upbringing which endows Bassanio with the necessary tools to pass the test, whereas the other suitors are devoid of such sensibility. Through the casket test, the play exposes advocacy for spiritual cogitation over that of the earthly or natural type. This concept is more aptly expressed by Joan Ozark Holmer, who writes: “In the play, wisdom is spiritual understanding that prompts the emulation of divine love, the ability to perceive the spirit behind the letter so that one can rightly discriminate between truth and falsehood and can choose rightly in loving not too well but wisely” (Holmer, 96). Another profound exhibition of the grossly conflicting ideals of Shylock and the Christians can be observed at the trial scene in Act IV. Shylock makes evident his desire for revenge and strict adherence to the letter of the law, while the Christians endorse mercy, forgiveness, and generosity. Shylock’s very countenance at court is sadistic and cruel as he whets the blade of his knife, readying it for the cleaving of Antonio’s flesh. His deliberate cruelty at trial stands in marked contrast with the meekness of Antonio, who remains silent as his friends plead on his behalf with an inexorable Shylock. Having deemed their pleas hopeless, Antonio intercedes with the following lines, displaying a submissiveness analogous to that of Christ at His trial: “Make no more offers, use no farther means,/ But with all brief and plain conveniency/ Let me have judgment and the Jew his will” (IV, i, 80-82). By plainly contrasting the demeanors of Shylock and Antonio, the play establishes the Christian representative as inarguably the more virtuous one. Apart from his overtly barbaric hunger for revenge, which can be credited to little more than individual depravity, there is yet a reasonable explanation for his unrelenting commitment to contracts: When considering the decisions made by Shylock at the trial, one may concede that he is partly guided by the principles of his theology, which, founded on the Torah and the Old Testament, focus on a specific code of conduct to be strictly followed. Maus discerns that “Shylock’s Judaism reveals itself not merely in his distinctive dress and avoidance of pork, but in his trust of literal meanings, his respect for observable facts, his expectation that contracts will be rigorously enforced” (Maus, 429). Shylock’s stone heart proves incapable of softening to the numerous and involved entreaties of Antonio’s companions. When asked why he will not take money in place of Antonio’s flesh, Shylock responds: “So I can give no reason, nor I will not,/ More than a lodged hat and a certain loathing/ I bear Antonio…” (IV, i, 58-60). On the consideration that Shylock denies money, one might infer, not that Shylock has abated his obsession with worldly riches, but that he intends on making that money back many times over in sequence to his bloody revenge. At the trial, Shylock alludes to his aforementioned annoyance that Antonio “lends out money gratis, and brings down/ The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (I, iii, 39-40), when, giving reason for demanding “the due and forfeit of [his] bond”, he provides the following analogy: “What if my house be troubled with a rat,/And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats/To have it baned” (IV, i, 43-45). Here, Shylock reveals his ploy: by eliminating Antonio, “the rat”, he removes the barrier inhibiting the maximum profit of his business, which Antonio prevents through his free money lending. Therefore, Shylock is not trading one evil for another, but attempting to take the best of both. Before the grand appeal for mercy delivered by Portia, Shylock is met with an abundance of more subtle arguments, one being from Graziano, who says: “But no metal can,/No, not the hangman’s axe, bear half the keenness/Of thy sharp envy. Can no prayers pierce thee” (IV, i, 123-125), to Which Shylock coldly answers: “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make” (IV, i, 126). By trivializing the significance of prayer, which, even for a Jew is central to faith, Shylock proves his godlessness and disregard for the bonds of his own Judaic doctrines. Until Portia arrives on scene, Shylock’s repeated defense is that the law is on his side: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,/The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (IV,i,201-202). Perhaps the most singular and effective petition for Christian mercy comes with Portia’s arrival at the trial. Disguised as Balthazar, a young lawyer from Padua, Portia appeals to human compassion before consulting the law, asserting that “the Jew must be merciful”, not under compulsion of the law, but by obligation of human decency, which Portia elaborates upon as follows: The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes… It is an attribute to God himself, And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. (IV, i, 179-198) With the presentation of this appeal, Portia is giving Shylock a chance to choose the virtuous route of forgiveness in substitution for his insistence upon “letter of the law”. According to her faith, Portia believes mercy to be the king of virtues, the most holy and majestic of all qualities found in either corporeal or celestial beings. In essence, Portia’s elaborate speech communicates what Alexander Pope observed so simply: “To err is human, to forgive, divine”. Portia articulates that mercy is not a forced requirement, but rather a righteous and noble choice. For Christians, mercy should be given as readily as it is received, for it is a free gift of God, distributed prolifically and perpetually to atone for the sinful nature of man. For Shylock, however, the concept of mercy is evidently foreign. He will accept no sum of money in place of the pound of flesh, and still he persists: “Proceed to judgment. By my soul I swear/There is no power in the tongue of man/To alter me…” (IV, i, 235-237). Ironically, there proves to be ample power in the tongue of a woman to foil the arrogance of Shylock, as, much to his vexation, Portia brilliantly and uses the literal “letter of the law”, the contract written by Shylock’s own hand, against him. Shylock is entitled to Antonio’s flesh, but, as Portia shrewdly descries: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (IV, i, 301). Shylock is here fed a taste of his own medicine, as Holmer remarks: “Shylock had banked on a no-lose situation for himself only to discover that the personal risk inherent in dependence on the letter of the law as well as in violation of the law” (Holmer, 211). Even after convicting Shylock, the Christians do not cease to preach mercy: That thou shall 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. (IV, i, 363-367) The above lines are delivered by the Duke in a didactic, almost pedantic tone. The Duke takes hold of an opportunity to show the foolishness of Shylock’s egotistic pride. By responding in the opposite spirit, the Duke effectively thwarts Shylock’s precedent arrogance. Even Antonio, who gains entitlement to half of Shylock’s wealth, lets him keep it until his death under the condition that it will be posthumously transferred to Lorenzo and Jessica. The mercy of the Christians renders Shylock virtually mute, thereby proving the power of mercy over revenge: After being peppered with grace, Shylock is asked: “Art thou contented Jew? What dost thou say” (IV, i, 388), to which he begrudgingly answers: “I am content” (IV, i, 389). Shylock’s uncharacteristically brief response is evidence of his defeated state. The concluding act of the play serves to emphasize the pleasurable rewards of the Christians in contrast to the sufferings of Shylock and the other non-Christians. As E.E. Stoll states: “Shylock is given a villain’s due. His is the heaviest penalty to be found in all the pound of flesh stories…Not in the Servian, the Persian, or the African version…does the moneylender suffer like Shylock” (Stoll, 15). Shylock loses his daughter and servant, a considerable sum of his wealth, and procures further injury to his already tarnished reputation. Morocco and Aragon are forced to forfeit their eligibility for marriage, thereby depriving them of filial inheritance. The fact that the non-Christians suffer such undesirable fates suggests the play’s implication, no matter how indirect, that the mercy and charity of the Christians is preferred to the self-seeking, and at times inhumane, pursuits of the non-Christians. John Russell Brown, in accordance with this notion writes: The Merchant of Venice presents in human and dramatic terms Shakespeare’s ideal of love’s wealth, its abundant and sometimes embarrassing riches; it shows how wealth is gained and possessed by giving freely and joyfully; it shows also how destructive the opposing possessiveness can become. (Brown, 90) As implied by the above excerpt, the love enacted by the Christians is rewarded with a profusion of prosperity as they convene in fraternity in the mystical and seemingly utopic land of Belmont. Antonio wins back his life and more wealth than he had ever before possessed. Bassanio and his friends, Graziano and Lorenzo, have all obtained wives and prospective dowries. All are merry and in good company, immersed in the luxury of Portia’s extravagant estate. In reference to the good news professed by Portia in the final scene, Lorenzo makes a biblical allusion to describe the rich fortunes befalling the Christians: “Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way/Of starved people” (V, i, 93-94), which beautifully insinuates the play’s favor of the virtues of Christian values.

Works Cited
Brown, John Russel. "Love's Wealth and the Judgement of The Merchant of Venice." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970. Print. Grebanier, Bernard. The Truth About Shylock. 1st. 1. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1962.

Print.
Holmer, Joan Ozark. The Merchant of Venice: Choice, Hazard, and Consequence. 1st. 1. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. Print.
Maus, Katherine E.. "The Merchant of Venice." The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies. Ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print. Stoll, E.E. "Shylock." Modern Critical Interpretations: The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Harold
Bloom. NewYork: Chelsea House, 1986. Print.

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