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Theme of Merchant of Venice


There’s no other person like William Shakespeare who did so incredibly much for the development and prosperity of English theater. There are a lot of uncommon unique themes he covered in his famous play The Merchant of Venice.

About The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is considered a romantic comedy. But contrary to the traditional comedies of Shakespeare’s time, it is a deep and moving play, so sometimes it can be classified as a tragedy. In this creation of Shakespeare for the first time, a theme was raised that became popular much later. William Shakespeare had never written anything like this before. His characters, Shylock, Antonio, Portia, are well-recognized throughout the whole world.

The Merchant of Venice clearly indicates the author’s sensitivity and understanding of the human soul and its complicated nature. The play is an exciting mixture of the classical play, geniuses Shakespearean observations, a deep understanding of the nature of the conflicts between people, and breathtaking interactions between characters.

The Merchant of Venice is a popular play to see on the stage nowadays; however, the main ideas of it might confuse the modern people as they appear to be very controversial and hard-to-understand. Critics today continue to argue about the play’s position on Jews, and Judaism and opinions on this matter differ greatly. Still, the play requires seemingly endless analysis of some very thorny issues such as gender roles, ethnicity, segregation, the meaning of friendship, marriage, money, law, and the violence of racism.

The plot covers the Jewish issues, along with some other important sociological issues such as religious prejudices that have a ruining effect on the people’s fates. In fact, it may be a coded examination of the mutual antipathy between Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England and an appeal for greater tolerance between them.

Central Theme of The Merchant of Venice

Many critics consider the conflict between self-sacrifice and selfishness to be the main theme of the play. A young Bassanio, being in debt, decides to marry the wealthy beauty, Portia. He asks for help from his friend, the Venetian merchant Antonio. Antonio, willing to help his friend and to show great compassion, borrows money from the Jewish usurer Shylock.

Shylock can legally carve a whole pound of meat from the body of the merchant if the merchant does not pay him back in time, and there’s not to obey the terms of the promissory note. Bassanio, having received the necessary amount, goes to Portia and marries her. Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships are wrecked, and the bill expires. A court session is held to resolve the issue with payment of the bill. The court recognizes Shylock’s legal right to receive a forfeit but asks him to be merciful. 

Central Character of The Merchant of Venice

The central character, Antonio, expresses his willingness to die in order to prove his loyalty to Bassanio. Starting a legal battle against Antonio, Shylock, who hates Antonio, remains relentless. He demands a pound of meat from Antonio’s body as compensation for the losses incurred. But in fact, he intends to settle scores with a man whom he has long and hopelessly sympathized with. This is the tragedy of Shylock’s character. In the play, the character of Shylock is being described as a negative one as he has no compassion for others and considers money to be his highest priority in life. So, all these thoughts and actions are only around money and wealth. 

Subthemes Covered in The Play

The subthemes in the Merchant of Venice are the following:

Problem of Greed Overpowering Compassion

Here also the problem of greed overpowering compassion is touched. Shylock is only interested in his material gain, ignoring the value of human relationships. Shylock suffers from losing money too much, running through the streets, bemoaning them. He’s really out of line, claiming that he values ​​money just as much as he does his own daughter. 

The Theme of Hate

Hate that comes from both sides is another one of the play’s main themes. The authors of the play portrait Shylock as a live human being that has his flaws and his greedy motives. Shylock has had a hard fate as he was mocked in childhood, which had led his soul to be so hard and which made him to blindly dream of revenge.

Shylock says that he acts in accordance with his Christian neighbor’s deeds. But we can observe Shylock’s real intention in the court – to harm Antonio and take revenge. His anger didn’t come from anything, of course. It was the result of the injuries and insults that Antonio expressed in relation to him before. Antonio is being a real villain, as he disrespectful spits on him and calls names just to hurt him.

Even after the trial, Antonio remains unfair and soulless toward Shylock, demanding that he abjures his religion. Not only Antonio but also other Christians, such as Gratiano, threaten Shylock. And the only reason Christians do it is because of Shylock’s Jewish beliefs. Shylock also has only hated for his enemies, which creates a closed circle of hate. 

Successful Coexisting of Business and Friendship 

One of the main themes of ​​the “Merchant of Venice” is that business and friendship can successfully coexist. The play also seems to be saying: Christians are capable of being both friends and business partners – unlike Jews, who live by the principle: friendship is friendship, and money is apart. But there is another thought in the play, which fortunately has become obsolete in our time: a Christian will not be friends with a Jew, even if they are business partners. The Jewish woman in the play is described in a completely various light: she is both the friend and the beloved of the Christian. 

Shakespeare’s play covers modern sociological issues as well. The women in this play are shown as independent and strong characters that, in the end, help Antonio survey such a hard life and overcome all the difficulties. 

The Theme of Mercy and Prejudice

The theme of mercy and prejudice is also covered in the play and can be called the central one. Some people see the appeal for tolerance in the plot as Shylock can also be seen as a sensitive and vulnerable person and a playable character. They believe that Shylock’s resentment isn’t what appears on the surface, but goes much deeper than his monetary greed. Shylock does not approve the decision of his lovely daughter to trade that symbol of love that was left from this already dead wife. 

To prove such a point of view, some people mention the trial at the end of the writing piece that is basically being a mockery of justice. The fast the Portia serves as a judge there, although she is not entitled to it, also proves it. The person who has blamed Shylock for lying has won thanks to using the trickery, which was a triumph of injustice. The whole play shows how the life of Shylock is full of undeserved tension and hatred only because of the conflict between the Christian and Jewish religions.

As wild as it may seem today, Neville encourages Christians to convert Jews to their faith in any way – by compulsion or through marriage. They also took away what might be of great value to him – disable him from his money-lending profession. Shylock seems to become a target for abuse.

The attitude of Christians to Shylock is based on religious prejudices, although they talk about mercy to any human being, which is a double standard. Shylock says in the play: Jews may be bad people, but Christians are no better. 

Such prejudice toward Shylock can be explained by Renaissance culture that tends to portray minorities like Shylock as a villain. Since he had to be shown as the opposite to good, he can’t express compassion towards his enemies in any case. The role of the merciful people was always supposed to be occupied by Christians. That’s what audiences of the sixteenth century were used to.

Still, Shylock’s famous words set us thinking, does a jew not have eyes, if you prick them, do they not bleed, are the minorities tolerant to pain? He wants the audience to see more than just a Jewish nature and a villain, as those are only the superficial factors of his character. The main idea of the play is that all people deserve to be appreciated regardless of their religion, race, nations, or beliefs. This idea has not lost its importance even in the modern days, and that is why we come back to the play The Merchant of Venice = over and over again. 

The Theme of Money and Love

The theme of money and love also takes place in the comedy. Some ‘good’ characters also obtain materialistic views. Although Bassanio and Portia start out loving each other, firstly, it couldn’t be called pure love. Bassanio’s main motive in asking for Portia’s hand was his huge debt. So, he just needed Portia’s money to pay back. We can see that the symbols of honesty and love are often considered of lower importance than money. Even to reach compassion and love people, there should have agreements on a contract basis. Can really the value of human relationships be measured in material stuff?

The Theme of Perception

One more interesting and quite controversial team in the play The Merchant of Venice is the theme of perception. The story of the play shows and proves that the appearance is often very different from the inside world, so relying solely on it when deciding whether or not that’s the good person is now the right way. The suitors in the play make their decisions based on personal needs and desire to have more money. Portia’s life could have turned out to be very different if her fiancé did not choose from gold and silver.

Only Bassanio has chosen the right casket, and the first two gentlemen have made a wrong decision because they have been led my poor intentions. In the three casks trials, the casks that look the awful outside appeared to have the most satisfying interior. It emphasizes the dissonance we can face between appearance and inner character. 

Conflict Between Self-Interest and Mercy

Finally, the conflict between self-interest and mercy plays a great role in comedy. The strange litigation is complicated by the deception that Portia resorts to. She changes into a man’s dress and appears in court as Antonio’s lawyer, but in reality, she is driven only by her love for Bassanio. With her resourcefulness, she manages not only to save Antonio but also to severely punish Shylock. Shylock makes bright speeches in defense of people of his nationality. 

Final Word

The whole situation in court looks paradoxical: a Jew who demands revenge is actually alone and opposed to Christians. Disguised, Portia makes the famous speech about mercy, although not long before that, she brutally tortured her husband Bassanio with confirmation of Antonio’s guilt.

After the duke was ready to show mercy, she showed intransigence and cunning in relation to Shylock, who is ultimately forced to convert to another faith. Portia has managed to turn the las against the Shylock, thus leaving him without his most powerful weapon. The play ends with a symbolic episode: Portia “returns” Bassanio by deception the ring received from him, but transfers it not directly into the hands of his beloved, but through Antonio.

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