Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare's comedic play, The Merchant of Venice. Themes are central to understanding The Merchant of Venice as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
Reality and Idealism
The Merchant of Venice is structured partly on the contrast between idealistic and realistic opinions about society and relationships. On the one hand, the play tells us that love is more important than money, mercy is preferable to revenge, and love lasts forever. On the other hand, more cynical voices tell us that money rules the world, mercy alone cannot govern our lives, and love can evaporate after marriage.
The play switches abruptly between these different attitudes. Shakespeare organizes the shifts between idealism and realism by associating the two concepts with the play's two locations. Venice is depicted as a city of merchants, usurers, and cynical young men. Belmont, in contrast, is the land where fairytales come true and romance exists.
he Merchant of Venice begs the question, does mercy exist in the world? Between religious intolerance and personal revenge, the play seems devoid of a merciful being.
However, against all the odds, Portia does manage to bring about some mercy in Venice. When Shylock faces execution for his crimes, Portia persuades the Duke to pardon him. She then persuades Antonio to exercise mercy by not taking all of Shylock's money from him. Here, Portia's presence turns the proceedings away from violence and toward forgiveness. Portia does, therefore, succeed in transmitting some of her idealism into Venice. Act IV ends with the suggestion that idealism can sometimes survive in the real world.
Throughout the play, and as of Act 3, Scene 4, Launcelot Gobbo is still trying to reconcile his affection for Jessica with his belief that all Jews are devils. This theme continually recurs in the clown scenes, and it seems as though Shakespeare is deliberately making fun of the Christian's attitudes toward the Jews.
The function of a clown is to misunderstand people and undermine their assumptions by asking simple, obvious questions. By highlighting the confusion of biblical texts, and raising pragmatic questions about the conversion of Jews, Launcelot, in his clownish ways, demonstrates the absurdities and complications that arise from the automatic damnation of a religious faith. Ultimately, he prevents the play from simplifying life too much. Beneath the apparently clear-cut cultural divisions in the play is an awareness of the complexities of real life.