Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written in 1596 deals with themes such as anti-semitism, love, hatred, Christianity, Judaism, mercy and justice all of which were very relevant to an Elizabethan audience. These themes were juxtaposed throughout the play to create contrast and controversy and also to convey this polarity to the viewing audience. The acts and scenes in the Merchant of Venice were also juxtaposed carefully to highlight the individual characters strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues to allow the audience to analyse them and decide where our sympathies ought to lie.
Throughout the play however, we witnessed a kaleidoscope of different sides to each character through their interaction with other characters. As the play progressed and the characters revealed their true colours, we as the audience reassessed our feelings towards them and subsequently, our sympathies were always changing. The characters themselves were also juxtaposed to allow the audience to compare them with other characters and their behaviour during previous scenes.
Shakespeare’s purpose in structuring his play in such a manner was to help the audience to understand the characters better, this also created an air of suspense, which prevented the audience from becoming bored. If the scenes were arranged badly and the characters were all 2-dimensional, the plot and story would unfold all too soon and the audience would quickly lose interest. The constant changing of sympathy from character to character in The Merchant of Venice gave the viewing audience an opportunity to reassess their own moral thermometer or “judging system” and how they decided who they felt sympathetic towards in the play.
Because the play itself is constantly referring to justice, morality and prejudice, we are constantly reminded and asked to think about the way we as individuals and as a society judge and discriminate. The Elizabethan mentality and the situation of Jews living in England allowed Shakespeare to further analyse and incorporate these themes into his play. Marlowe, another British writer during the 16th century wrote The Jew of Malta, a play full of religious conflict and political intrigue. Like The Merchant of Venice it dealt with anti-semitism and hatred which were themes particularly relevant to the audience in the early 16th century.
However, the Jew of Malta was highly stereotypical and discriminatory towards Jews. Many people believe that his play was to blame for the murder of Dr. Roderigo Lopez, the Queen’s doctor and a Jew. In 1593 at the height of The Jew of Malta’s popularity, Dr. Roderigo Lopez was accused of high treason for plotting to poison the Queen. However many people doubted this but in 1594 he was hung, drawn and quartered. The prevailing anti-semitic hysteria fuelled by the stereotypes in his book could have contributed directly or indirectly to this sad event.
Shylock is the most interesting and thought provoking character in The Merchant of Venice. His character also allows the most room for dramatic interpretation. It is difficult to decide whether he is the tragic outcome of the circumstances in which he lives or whether he is a villainous usurer who despite being begged for mercy, continues to request for another man’s pound of flesh. It is clear to see that despite his many vices, his sense of mercy and justice has been deeply fractured by the persecution he endures.
He is the victim of both verbal and physical abuse by the same Christians that demand his mercy later on in the play ” You call me a disbeliever, cut-throat dog and spit upon my Jewish Gabardine. Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last” (I. iii. 108-) so his desire to avenge such treatment is somewhat understandable if not to be condoned. It also seems that Christians zealots and their double standards are to blame for his demise. Throughout the 5 acts in the play, he is punished, deserted, humiliated and looked down upon by Christians. It is also clear to see that the only justification for such treatment was his religion and occupation.
Shylock’s first appearance in the Merchant of Venice is in Act 1 Scene 3, where Bassanio is talking about Antonio taking out a loan on his behalf. Shylock seems easy-going and trustworthy, before Antonio starts to heap insults upon him. I believe that this scene shows the audience Shylock’s true demeanour as an agreeable business man. Up until this point, the audience is entirely sympathetic towards him however, Shylock’s calculated attempt to revenge the wrongs done to him, make the audience become silently persuaded to think of him as a cut-throat business man without scruples.
This is in direct opposition to his earlier appearance in previous scenes as a misfortunate Jew commanding our undivided sympathies. He even made an oath in the synagogue stating that he would have his bond. The actor playing Shylock would dress him in a traditional Jewish Gabardine and make his movements, gestures and speech look and sound as cunning and sly as possible to allow Shylock to fit a specific Jewish stereotype. In the end, unfortunately, he loses everything that he holds dear to him. He is left without any money, forced to convert to Christianity, made to kneel and bag for mercy to a Christian and he loses his job.
At this point, no matter what your initial judgements of Shylock were, you have to sympathise with him because he is so alone and ruined. He even said that he would rather die than live the life he will have to live. Antonio, the Merchant of Venice and the main character in the play is the easiest to analyse. His character was 1 dimensional to the point where I had to wonder whether he had a personality at all. His life revolved around money (ducats) and Bassanio which at times allowed the audience to sympathise with him but at others made him appear pathetic and needy.
His many declarations of love for Bassanio may have seemed honourable but in my opinion, he seemed to thrive on Bassanio’s affections. He also emotionally manipulates Bassanio by sending him a letter begging him to come and see him “Pray God Bassanio come, to see me pay his debt, and then i care not” (III. iii. 35-36) At the beginning of the play, the audience is introduced to a depressed, gentle, easy-going figure so they respond sympathetically towards him even if they are slightly annoyed that he cannot name the source of his melancholy ” In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me” (I. I. 1-2). The audience also likes the way he treats his friends, he appears caring and listens to their problems. It is only when him and Bassanio go to visit Shylock that you realise, again Shakespeare has mislead you and that your initial judgements of him her totally incorrect. Shakespeare’s purpose in having both Bassanio and Shylock in the same room with Antonio allows the audience to see the contrast between the treatment Bassanio received and the treatment Shylock received from Antonio.
He discriminates violently against Shylock and his only justification is that he is a Jewish Usurer. He both verbally and physically abuses him on a daily basis “You call me a disbeliever, cut-throat dog and spit upon my Jewish Gabardine, fair sir you spat on me on Wednesday last” (I. iii. 108). Upon going to forfeit his bond, he couldn’t even muster the energy to plea his innocence or fight for his life, instead he (again) felt sorry for himself and became the pathetic man we had disliked in the beginning “I am the tainted wether of the flock, meetest for death.
The weakest kind of fruit drops earliest to the ground: and so let me” (IV. i. 114-116) In the end, Antonio’s life is saved and they leave the courtroom in a fairytale-like happy way. However, Antonio is still the outsider of the group, he is still without love and is still lonely and insecure. Bassanio’s character in The Merchant of Venice again can be interpreted differently according to the desired effect of the director.
In the first few pages of the play, the audience sees Bassanio as irresponsible with money as he is clearly spending above his salary and borrowing more than he can lend back leading him into debt ” I owe you much, and like a wilful youth, that which i owe is lost” (I. i. 146-147). He appears to dependant on Antonio for many things. It could be interpreted that Antonio manipulates and dominates him to make himself feel bigger and father-figure-like but more likely than not Bassanio latched onto Antonio for a sense of both financial and emotional security.
Therefore it could be said that they are both subconsciously or consciously using each other. Bassanio’s relationship with Antonio requires further scrutiny at this point. His declaration of love for Antonio “I am married to a wife, who is as dear to me as life itself; but life itself, my wife, and all the world, are not esteemed with me above your life; I would lose all, I would sacrifice all to this devil here, to deliver you. ” leads a modern audience to believe that him and Antonio are having a homosexual affair. However to an Elizabethan audience, their relationship would be considered as nothing more than platonic.
To help further distinguish between the two types of relationships i refer to Plato’s Phaedrus, which proposes a distinction between the two different types of love-erotic & philosophical where one leads t the pursuit of physical pleasure and the other, to the pursuit of intellectual and philosophical understanding. Bassanio’s character can also be considered as superficial and shallow. His first argument to Antonio as to why he should attempt to win Portia was based on wealth and beauty as opposed to her as a person ” In Belmont is a Lady richly left and she is fair, fairer than that word” (I. . 161-162).
His greed and immaturity made it difficult for the audience to sympathise with him at all, although it could be said that Antonio’s and Portia’s emotionally domineering personalities have allowed Bassanio to become totally dependant on them and in people in general “Sweet Bassanio, my ships are all lost, my bond to the Jew is forfeited, and since in paying it is impossible I should live, I could wish to see you at my death; notwithstanding use your pleasure; if your love for me do not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (IV. i. 274).
Dramatically, Bassanio’s character would be fairly extravagant and care-free. Due to the lack of stage directions, character interpretation and costumes would be left down to the director. It is likely though, that Bassanio would have been dressed quite smartly and expensively. I base this opinion on his marriage to the wealthy Portia and his rich business man friend Antonio. His gestures and facial expressions would have been in such a way that shows his extravagance and love for life. Portia’s part in The Merchant of Venice allowed Shakespeare to further analyse the role of women in the Elizabethan times.
And she is fair, fairer than that word” (I. i. 162) indicates that women were perceived as nothing more that beautiful objects to be looked at by men. The first impressions that the audience form of Portia is that she is a typical Elizabethan woman, downtrodden,meek and living in a man’s world. The vetting policy left by her dead father with regards to her ideal suitor means that she is left with no choice as to whom she marries ” Oh me, the word choose. I may neither choose whom i would, nor refuse whom i dislike” (I. ii. 19-20).
This immediately allows the audience to connect and sympathise with her as she appears to be a prisoner in her own home and is bound to the wishes of her dying father. However we soon discover that all our expectations of her are incorrect and that she is actually an empowered domineering heiress who embodied all the virtues of a stereotypical heroine. By almost tricking the audience into judging Portia based on her status etc. , This again allowed Shakespeare to address issues related to how we and society judge in general.
Dramatically, Portia would be dressed in lavish and luxurious garments and is likely to be ‘dripping’ with jewellery. On stage she would be loud, opinionated and powerful. In the end we see that she manages to get her own way and marry her desired suitor whilst abiding by her father’s wishes. Even so, many believe that Portia was spoilt and unappreciative of the hard work and care that went into preparing the 3 caskets. She is also perceived as hypocritical with regards to her famous speech concerning mercy “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath” (IV. . 179).
Yet when it was her turn to execute the mercy to Shylock during the trial scene, she not only helped to strip him of his livelihood, religion and money, but she also degraded and humiliated him by telling him to kneel before the Duke and beg for mercy. Many also believe that it was unfair of her to deceive Bassanio and the rest of the people in the courtroom into believing that she was Balthazar “When we are both accounted like young men, I’ll prove the prettier of the two” (IV. . ).
In my opinion, her ability to go unnoticed as a man and take over the courtroom, only further highlighted her quick-witted intelligence and potential for initiative and resourcefulness. Jessica’s role in The Merchant of Venice is somewhat less important but her character ties the themes of the play together. Jessica deals with issues such as good vs. bad, loyalty, Christianity vs. Judaism and most importantly love vs. Hate. It is true that she too is the victim of prejudice for being both a Jew and the daughter of the notorious Shylock “The sins of the father are to be laid on the children” (III. . 1) and her relationship with her father can be described as anything but loving.
However, her disregard and lack of respect for her father or her dead mother leads one to believe that she was fairly selfish and cares for herself only. Not only did she elope to marry a Christian (she was brought up as a Jew) but she stole money and jewellery from her father also. Some people believe that she was forced to elope as opposed to declare her love openly and sympathise with her for that, many too believe that her oppressed upbringing and possessive father ‘forced’ her to leave.
It is true that after hearing of his daughters departure, Shylock remarked “I would rather my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear” but under the circumstances, anyone would be annoyed to here that their own flesh and blood had stolen from them, more so; nearly put them out of business. Jessica also rather spitefully, exchanged her mother’s ring for a monkey (no one is sure whether it was an actual monkey that Shakespeare was referring to or an amount of money). This was insensitive of her as i am sure she was aware of how important the ring was to her father “That tortuest me Tubal….. I had it of Leah” (III. i. 73-75).
Throughout her first few appearances in the play, I am sure that the audience was entirely sympathetic towards her and understood the difficult position she was in but as the play drew on and she became more and more hedonistic in her approach to life in general, some people sympathised more with Shylock. Sympathy is to share another person’s feelings and emotions especially emotions like sorrow, pity and mutual understanding. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare forced us to reassess the idea of sympathy and how we judge people before carrying out that sympathy.