Merchant of Venice: Theme Analysis


Theme Analysis

Prejudice: The Merchant of Venice has been labeled an anti-Semetic play by some critics, but this is far from the only way to look at it.  The character of Shylock seems, outwardly, to be the villain of the play.  He sets up a plan to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio, who, outwardly, seems like a good Christian.  The story, however, is much deeper than this.  Shakespeare gives reasons for Shylock's actions-if they are acts of hatred, it is not unfounded hatred.  Instead, it is clear that the Antonio has given Shylock ample reason to seek revenge.  Further, many of the Christian characters exhibit the same behaviors which they persecute Shylock for.  Upon examination of Shylock's motives and the actions of the Christians in the play, it is not Shylock's Jewishness which is being criticized, but the hypocrisy shown by the Christian characters. 
The normal first reaction to Shylock's character is that he is cruel and evil because of his un-Christian hatred for Antonio.  However, it is actually Antonio who shows an unfounded hatred.  As Anne Barton points out in the introduction, "Treated as something inhuman, a 'dog' or a 'cur,' Shylock not unnaturally responds...with tooth and claw" (The Riverside Shakespeare, page285). Shylock does admit to hating Antonio for being a Christian, but he adds that his hatred really stems from reasons other than religion.  Antonio drives down the interest rates in town by lending money without interest-he knowingly takes away the only livelihood which Shylock is permitted (1.3.42).
Antonio spits and kicks Shylock whenever he comes in contact with him.  He gives no reason for this, beyond the fact that Shylock is not a Gentile.  Antonio, who, along with other Christians, later criticizes Shylock for his hatred, proves a hypocrite because he hates Shylock without reason, and in doing so, gives Shylock reason to return this hatred.
Shylock is portrayed as a greedy character in the play, another un-Christian attribute.  Yet, the Christians in the play are in no position to judge him in this respect.  Lorenzo seems every bit as concerned with Shylock's ducats as he is with Jessica herself.  He explains the plan to Gratiano: "She hath directed/ me how I shall take her from her father's house/ What gold and jewels she is furnish'd with" (2.4.30). 
Though Antonio seems generous, lending his money to close friends, other Christian characters are not.  Bassanio admits in the first act that he is in debt because he lives off of loans from others.  His greed is of an even grosser nature than Shylock's because he satisfies it throught irresponsible means-borrowing without repaying.  Even his love interest in Portia seems strongly tied to her wealth.  His first argument to Antonio as to why he should attempt to win Portia is based on money.  He says, "In Belmont is a lady richly left..." (1.1.161).  He then goes on to discuss her other virtues, but it is her wealth which has obviously caught his attention.  The audience, therefore, cannot accuse Shylock of being guilty of greed without also pointing out the same guilt in these Christian characters.
It's interesting that Shylock is aware of the hypocricy of the Christians throughout the play.  When Salerio questions Shylock's desire for revenge, Shylock points out that he is not at all unlike a "good Christian" in his endeavors.  He points out to them:
If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge.  If a Christian wrong
A Jew, what should his sufferance be by Chris-
tian example? Why revenge.  The villainy you teach
me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will
better the instruction.
(3.1.68)
This is an interesting statement, especially since it immediately follows Shylock's argument that Jews bleed, laugh, and die in the same manner as Christians.  It is an extension of this argument to say that it is also a common human trait to seek revenge on those who have done one wrong. 
Bassanio challenges this assertion in act five when they are trying to talk Shylock out of demanding the pound of flesh.  Bassanio asks, "Do all men kill the things they do not love?" (5.1.66).  The implication is that this is the unmerciful thinking of a Jew; an accusation to which Shylock responds: "Hates any man the thing he would not kill?" (4.1.67).  His statement suggests that revenge is a human trait, not a Jewish one. 
Shylock goes one step farther in arguing that the Christians are hypocrites for criticizing his act of revenge.  He compares his right to the pound of Antonio's flesh to the Christian practice of keeping slaves.  He says, rightly, that if he were to request the Christians to release their slaves and show them mercy, they would reply that they own them.  Likewise, he explains, "The pound of flesh which I demand of him/ Is dearly bought as mine, and I will have it" (4.1.94). 
Shakespeare incorporates a plot twist which further illustrates the hypocricy which Shylock is talking about.  Lorenzo steals Shylock's daughter, Jessica, from him.  This is more than just a disrespectful act in the context of the play.  When Shylock speaks of the act, he exclaims, "My own flesh and blood to rebel/...I say, my daughter is my flesh and my/ blood" (3.1.34).  In this sense, Lorenzo, a Christian, has taken flesh from Shylock.  Yet his act is not backed by legal contract, it is an illegal and subversive act done behind Shylock's back.  If Shylock's legal claim to a pound of flesh is seen as terrible, then this illegal extraction of Shylock's "flesh" by a Christian is something much worse.
The hypocricy of the Christians manifests itself most strongly in the trial scene.  At first, the Duke tells Shylock that everyone expects him to forego the pound of flesh at the last minute, and furthermore, they wish for him to show further mercy on Antonio.  They ask that Shylock, "Forgive a moi'ty of the principal/ Glancing an eye of pity on his losses" (4.1.25).  Shylock, of course, refuses. 
Later, when Shylock is undone by Portia's interpretations of the law, the Christians present withhold from Shylock the same mercy which they scolded him for not showing to Antonio earlier.  None of them "Glance and eye of pity" on the losses suffered by Shylock.  Antonio's losses were only monetary, while Shylock has lost riches and a daughter-his own flesh.  So it would seem that the Christian's have exacted the same revenge on Shylock which he had attempted to exact on Antonio.
The difference lies in the fact that their only reasoning for punishing him so harshly seems to be that he is a Jew.  Antonio had no other reason to hate him before now; in fact, he freely agreed to the contract which Portia snuck him out of.  Antonio here seems to be the most merciless of all of them.  On top of the loss of all of his fortune and his daughter, Antonio adds two more punishments to the heap.  He first requests that Shylock become a Christian-thereby taking from Shylock the one thing that he might still cling to, his religious beliefs.  Secondly, Antonio makes him will all of his remaining wealth to his Jessica and Lorenzo.  This request, in essence, means that he must give his blessing to a marriage which took place behind his back, against his will, and through acts of disloyalty on his daughter's part. 
This is what the Christians call mercy-forcing Shylock to pay a penalty which is arguably worse than what he had wished to take out on Antonio.  The sentence delivered to Shylock is also significant because it makes the audience feel natural sympathy for Shylock.  He has lost everything he has from his daughter, to his wealth, to his religion.  He is last seen in the play as a character who has had everything taken from him by the Christians.  Shakespeare obviously intended the audience to pity Shylock after such a harsh fate befell him, which suggests that the play is not intended to be anti-Semetic.  A play which was anti-Semetic in nature would not end the play with the audience pitying the main Jewish character. 
Instead, it seems that this play uses Shylock's character to reveal the true hypocritical nature of the Christian characters in the play.  They perform the same acts which Shylock does, often to a more base extent, and call them Christian acts and merciful acts.  However, when Shylock attempts to do the same things, he is persecuted.  The play doesn't portray Shylock as a cruel, merciless Jew.  Instead, it instills in his character tendencies and desires which are no different from Christian beliefs and desires.  In going so, Shakespeare reveals the hypocritical nature of the Christian's actions
Loyalty: The theme of loyalty in the play comes out through the interactions of several sets of characters.  First, there is Bassanio, who is close friends with Antonio-their friendship survives stressful situations in the play.  Next, there is the relationship between Bassanio and his wife, Portia.  The third major character interaction which deals with the theme of loyalty is Jessica's relationship to her father, Shylock when she runs away to marry a Christian, Lorenzo.
The loyalty between Bassanio and Antonio becomes evident in the first act of the play when Antonio loans Bassanio a large sum of money and takes him on his word that he will repay it.  From Bassanio's words, we realize that this has taken place before, "I owe you much, and like a willful youth/ That which I owe is lost, but if you please/ To shoot another arrow that self way/ Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt/ As I will watch the aim, or to find both/ Or bring your latter hazard back again/ And thankfully rest debtor for the first." (I.i.146). From this quote, it seems Bassanio has borrowed money to Antonio before and hasn't repayed the debts, and yet Antonio still loans to him again out of sheer loyalty to friends.
This loyalty is returned to Antonio by Bassanio towards the end of the play when Bassanio races home from his Belmont to save Antonio from his debt to Shylock.  Bassanio actually puts a quantitative value on his loyalty, "But life itself, my wife, and all the world/ Are not with me esteem'd above thy life./ I would lose all, ay, sacrafice them all/ Here to this devil, to deliver you." (IV.i.284).  Bassanio actually offers to give over his own life and all of his loved posessions to save Antonio-his loyalty is greater than the repayment of the financial debt he owes to Antonio.  In the end, he makes the sacrafice of giving the "judge" (Portia in disguise) the ring which his wife gave to him and told him never to remove if he loved her.  This sacrafice of a symbol of love for his wife is the ultimate symbol of loyalty to his friend.
Ironically, this act of loyalty towards one character in the play is a blatant act of disloyalty towards Portia, his wife.  Bassanio pledges his loyalty to Portia upon winning the riddle and again upon leaving to help Antonio, "...but till I come again/ No bed shall e'er be guilty of my stay/ Nor rest be interposer 'twixt us twain." (III.ii.325).  Though his vow is correct in that he does not cheat on her, he does go back on his promise by giving away the ring he gave her to thank the judge.  This would seem to be a blatant act of disloyalty and clash with his otherwise noble actions of loyalty.  However, in light of the fact that it was Portia who disguised herself as the judge in order to test her husband, and he was therefore forced into the act by underhanded measures, his disloyalty here must be taken with a grain of salt.
The final character interaction to be considered in discussing the theme of loyalty is the relationship between Jessica and her father, Shylock.  Her love for a Christian is one of the side-stories in the play, but it is central to the theme.  When she runs away with Lorenzo, she steals ducats from her father in addition to her disloyalty to her decision to disobey him in marrying a Christian.  She expresses uncertainty about her decision when she dresses as a boy to run away.  She says, "...I am much ashamed for my exchange. (II.v.36)" By this she means that she is ashamed to be dressed as a boy, but the second meaning of the quote is that she is ashamed to have exchanged her love and loyalty to her father for the love of a Christian.  Her reaction to music in the final act shows her further remorse for disloyalty.  Shylock doesn't allow music in his house and when Jessica hears the music in Belmont at the close of the play she says, "I am never merry when I hear sweet music. (V.i.69)" This statement suggests that the music has made her think of her father and reflect upon her own actions.  She is unhappy at the end of the play, and some stage productions even suggest that Shylock has died of grief and that she is saddened for causing him such pain.

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