Combinations of three are rife in this play: three caskets, three rings, three friends, three settings, three weddings, and three stories.
In order to win Portia, the suitors of Portia must choose between three caskets: gold, silver and lead. Portia and Nerissa each entrust a ring to their husbands and Jessica steals Shylock’s ring. Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo are the three young men. The settings are Verona, Belmont and the court. Bassanio marries Portia, Gratiano marries Nerissa and Lorenzo marries Jessica, so there is a triple wedding at the end of the play. The three stories are that of Portia and her father’s will, Shylock and the bond, and Antonio losing his young friends. The relationship between Portia, Bassanio and Antonio is also considered a complex triangle. Portia must accept that Antonio will always be a large part of Bassanio’s life. Antonio talks of this relationship when he says to Bassanio:
Commend me to your honourable wife;
Tell her the process of Antonio’s end,
Say how I loved you,
(Act 4, Scene 1)
Academic Penny Gay claims that “Portia must accept this strong emotional tie and, indeed, builds it into her love for Bassanio.”
Law and rules relating to the law are driving forces in The Merchant of Venice. Many critics believe that Shylock manipulates the law for individual purposes, however the law is the only privilege that he is afforded and the only thing he can trust, and even that is taken away from him. Portia shows great intellect in her application of the law and her use of it is seen as noble, however, she is actually twisting the finer points of the law, manipulating them to her own advantage and overriding a legal document that was signed and should be honoured. The Venetian law is strictly adhered to until this point and it is somewhat strange that the law which forbids an ‘alien’ to threaten a Venetian’s life is only remembered at the end of the trial.
Several of the female characters in the play dress as men in order to have agency. Jessica dresses as a boy in her bid to escape her father’s house, and Portia and Nerissa dress as young men to take on the role of officers of the court. By assuming the clothes of the opposite sex, Portia enables herself to assume the power and position denied to her as a woman. Shakespeare was greatly interested in the dramatic potential of cross-dressing and used the device often, especially in his comedies.
The Three Caskets
The gold, silver, and lead caskets resemble the cultural and legal system of Venice. Like the Venice of the play, the casket contest presents the same opportunities and the same rules to men of various nations, ethnicities, and religions. Also like Venice, the hidden bias of the casket test is fundamentally Christian. To win Portia’s hand in marriage, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (Act 2, Scene 7), and the silver casket which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (Act 2, Scene 7). The correct casket is lead and warns “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (Act 2, Scene 7).
Christian teachings are reflected in the casket competition; principally that appearances can be deceiving. This is represented in the unattractive and least desirable casket, the lead casket, being the winning casket. Portia’s father has presented marriage as one in which the proper suitor risks and gives everything for the spouse, in the hope of a divine recompense he can never truly deserve. Bassanio wins in this instance, yet it is not clear whether he will continue to gamble in married life after the resolution of the play.
The Pound of Flesh
The pound of flesh is a symbolic reminder of the inflexibility of both Shylock and the law. It also symbolises the connection between Antonio and Bassanio, that they have almost become ‘one flesh’ through their friendship and bond. It has been suggested that Shylock doggedly seeks the pound of flesh as compensation for the loss of his own ‘flesh and blood’, Jessica. Shylock never demands that Antonio die but repeatedly asks, in his numerical mind, for a pound of flesh in exchange for his three thousand ducats. While other characters measure their emotions through words, Shylock measures through numerical quantities.
The ring is a symbol of Shylock’s humanity. The ring was given to Shylock most likely by his wife Leah, Jessica’s mother – an object of great importance. When told that Jessica has stolen it and traded it for a monkey, Shylock very poignantly laments its loss: “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (Act 3, Scene 1). Shylock is uncharacteristically vulnerable when he is told of the ring’s loss, and here we see love and grief in him in contrast to his constant anger.
Shakespeare’s plays tend to conclude in the city in which they began, but in this play, the action ends in Belmont suggesting that the Christians have abandoned Shylock and the woes of Venice for a new beginning. Belmont in itself represents wealth derived from inheritance. This inheritance has been accumulated by profiting from the commercial activity of Venice, and thus the ‘utopia’, Belmont, is actually founded on the trade it claims to reject. Ending the play in Belmont serves to remind the audience that the play may seem to be a comedy, but it is, in fact, in many ways a tragedy.