The Merchant of Venice

Debatable points

Is Antonio in love with Bassanio or is he simply a deeply devoted friend?

The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio has been a source of much debate for many years. Certainly the two men care deeply for one another, yet whether that bond extends beyond friendship is unclear. Some have theorised that Antonio in particular is romantically attracted to Bassanio, and many productions have explored this idea. Many argue that because Antonio puts his own precarious financial position in strife to help Bassanio, and even risks his life for him, that he must love him. Some even suggest that the reason for Antonio’s unexplained melancholy at the opening of the play is due to his unrequited love for Bassanio.

Is Portia the hero or the villain of the story?

Portia is famed for her beauty and intelligence, and famously advocates for “mercy” (Act 4, Scene 1). She manages to manipulate her way out of the game her father set up to secure his fortune, and gets the man she loves. She is celebrated for dressing as a lawyer and, with no courtroom experience, cleverly saves Antonio from losing a “pound of flesh.” For many reasons, she has been lauded as the hero (or heroine) of the story. However, Portia, in her actions, shows evidence that the opposite may also be true. In Belmont, she makes racist remarks about the Prince of Morocco. Later, in her sentencing of Shylock, Portia not only insists he lose his interest (fair, one might argue) but also his principal, property and his life. Only later, the Duke and Antonio decide that he may keep his life. She is disparaging to those of different race and religion on several occasions. While Portia is regarded as a strong and intelligent character, we must also acknowledge that her character is flawed, and at times she can be cruel.

Representation of the Jewish faith and anti-Semitism

The representation of Shylock, the Jewish faith and anti-Semitism in the play has been a topic of contention throughout history. We can speculate that Shakespeare would have been aware of his Jewish neighbours resident in London and the current and past literary treatment of the Jewish faith. Like most Londoners he would have also been aware that Venice was the first European city to segregate Jews into a Ghetto in 1516. However, historians note that unlike England, this offered Jews commercial rights and freedom from forced conversion. They were socially ridiculed and alienated, yet allowed to contribute to the economy, a setting that is both complicated and distant enough for Shakespeare to explore these racial and religious issues.

There have been centuries of debate over Shakespeare’s political intentions in regards to the character of Shylock. However, like all Shakespeare’s works, The Merchant of Venice may be rife with 16th century perspectives, but it is politically ambiguous. It offers a conflict of opposites for its audience to decipher, rather than any didactic message. Instead, Shakespeare focuses on character rather than on archetype. As Professor Penny Gay states, whether consciously or not, Shakespeare reveals the ‘pervasive habits of racial prejudice’ and shows the other side of the argument by making Shylock a three-dimensional character with a dramatised consciousness. He exposes the ironies in the divide between the Christian and Jewish cultures by presenting their shared humanity, whilst uncovering the idle and sometimes arrogant Christian patrons. The fact that this play continues to invite contrary reactions only highlights the complexity of the world that Shakespeare presented, one where both parties are flawed.

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