Power is a way for people control and dominate others; it takes a lot of work to maintain and use effectively. It can take years, or possibly seconds to gain power of others. It all depends on the how you create that power, and who you are using it against. In William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice most of the characters spend the whole time trying to gain and maintain power. The play is about a Jewish moneylender named Shylock lending money to a merchant, Antonio, for his friend, Bassanio, to travel to Belmont to try and win the heart of the heiress, Portia. Antonio must sign a bond in order to receive the money, because Shylock despises Antonio. The bond states that if Shylock does not get his money at a certain date then Antonio owes him a pound of his flesh. Antonio signs knowing he will have the money and then some from his ships coming in. Things start to go wrong though, when they get wind that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. Shylock then demands he gets his bond and takes Antonio to jail. In the trial Shylock is finally starting to believe that he can gain power and take his revenge from Antonio, but in the end Shylock loses due to the wits of Portia. Throughout the play it is a power struggle between all the characters, each tries in their own to gain control over the others. The point is through out this play each of the characters are gaining and losing power, each character has their own way to gain it be it through racism, the law, and the manipulation of others.
Power can be easily manifested through belittling others, and the best way to belittle others is to use racism. In the Merchant of Venice, all of the Venetians are racist against the Jews. Forcing them to live in a ghetto with a curfew, casting them away on their own island creates distance between the two races, treating the Jews like outsiders. The Venetians treat the Jewish with complete disrespect, “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,”(1.3 121-122). Antonio gains his power over Shylock by belittling him, spitting on him and calling him names because of his race. These actions make the Jews believe that they are outsiders, but they know that they should not be treated like this. Though people don‘t realize that someone from a different race should have just as much power and respect as another,
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?”(3.1 59-66).
Shylock has hardly any power because of his race, and wants people to understand because of his race he is not a worthless person. He has feelings and everything else the Venetians have, and shouldn’t be belittled or prejudiced against because of his race. It seems that throughout the play, Shylock loses a lot because of his race, he loses his daughter, his wealth, and in the end his dignity. All because the Venetians believe that Jews are less than human, and do not deserve the things that Shylock gains in his lifetime. Racism is an easy way for one to gain power over another, because racism forces another to believe that they are not as equal and they deserve the treatment they are receiving.
Along with racism, people can gain control over another through the law. Lawyers use the law to gain the upper hand in trials all the time, it is their main weapon against the other lawyer and the jury. Through the law Shylock finally gains power over Antonio by having him sign a contract, “Go with me to the notary, seal me there your single bond; and in a merry spot, if you’d not repay me not on such a day… let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of our fair flesh, to be cut off, and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me,”(1.3 156-163). Antonio signs this contract willingly and ends up not being able to pay Shylock back. Shylock refusing to listen to Antonio’s pleas, and demands to take Antonio to court, where he will get his pound of flesh. With this bond being a legally bound document, Antonio has no other choice then to be sentenced in court. When the judge tries to talk Shylock out of it, he refuses saying the law is on his side, “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought; tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fir upon the law: there is no force in the decrees of Venice,”(4.1 100-103). Even though the Duke wants to forbid this act he cannot because Shylock has the law on his side. The bond is legally bound, and there is no way that the Duke can overrule it without losing his control of Venice.
When Shylock finally believes that he will receive his revenge Portia comes in disguised as a man to stop him from taking the pound of flesh from Antonio. Using the law she convicts Shylock of a crime,
“It is enacted in the law of Venice, if it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive shall seize one half of his goods; the other half comes to the privy coffer of the state, and the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the Duke only, ‘gainst all other voice,”(4.1 362-371) Portia has gained power over him saying that since he seeks the life of a Venetian and him being a Jew is breaking the law, and has to forfeit all his goods. Shylock becomes stripped of his power because the law is against him, and the law is one of the greatest weapons in a trial. There is no way for him to fight the law, so Portia gains her control over him and frees Antonio of the legally bound bond. The law helps many people gain power.
Another way that many people have gained power over others is through manipulation. In The Merchant of Venice Portia becomes a master of manipulation, she manipulates everyone throughout the play. First when she disguises herself as a man to enter the courtroom and judge the trial. Then during the trial she manipulates Shylock with his own words in his bond, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.” Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, but in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the law of Venice confiscate,”(4.1 319-324). She uses her wits and forces Shylock to withdraw his actions. He can not take the bond without disobeying her words and the law of Venice. Portia is extremely intelligent, and she knows how people think, so she is able to use their own words and actions against them to gain the upper hand in life. She has even outwitted her newly wed husband, “We shall have old swearing that they did give the rings away to men; But we will outface them, and outswear them, too,”(4.2 19-21). While still dressed as a man she convinces her husband to give up his ring as payment for saving Antonio from death. At first he refuses saying his wife gave it to him, but in the end Antonio convinces him to give the ring up. She manipulates her own husband to make sure that she contains the power in the relationship and wants to make sure that he is really worth all the time she has spent waiting for him.
Power is a hard thing to maintain much less gain, but each one of the characters in The Merchant of Venice have their own ways to control their power. Shylock uses the law, to gain control over Antonio for the first time. Antonio has always had power over Shylock through his racism toward Shylock. Portia is the greatest at gaining and maintaining her power, because she understand how to play with people, she defeats Shylock with her manipulation and most of all the law, she even dominates her husband through her manipulation of him and the ring she gave as a token of their marriage. With this different techniques each character gains control over one of many characters for a short period of time or in some cases longer than that. It is a constant power struggle between the characters throughout the play, each demanding the power they believe that they deserve. Each at one point or another gains their power, but the difficulty is maintaining it, and Portia seems to be the only one that is skilled in that category. Even though each character deserves the power they are trying to gain, it is impossible for them all to have power and Shakespeare shows that, through the ability to have them lose almost instantly after they gain the power. Each character wants power but only one can truly have it, and that is why Shakespeare creates this power struggle between the aspects of racism, the law, and manipulation.