- Themes -
The world is full of hatred, but it is also full of love. Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice,” reveals and examines through events, several timeless and universal themes: prejudice and the many different manifestations of it, hatred and vengeance and how it is a cycle, and love and its different forms.
Prejudice comes in many different forms, including racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Portia dislikes the Prince of Morocco because he is dark-skinned, and states that she would not marry him even if he were a “saint” due to his race (I, ii, 121-125). In other words, no matter how good a man, how loving a person, or how strong a character the Prince of Morocco is, Portia would not marry him simply because he is black. Racism is an issue that has existed for thousands of years and is still present in our world today, causing conflict, unfair treatment, and even wars. In Shylock and Antonio’s trial, (IV, i) Portia must dress as a male, in order for her to even appear in court, let alone let her voice and opinion be heard. It is not concretely shown in the play, but is implied that she must wear the habit of a boy because women were not allowed in court – no one expects a woman to have any wit or intelligence. Portia proves that women can be equally intelligent as men, if not more, which is something that some people struggle to realize, even today. Throughout the play, Shylock is mistreated for one reason: he is a Jew. Having his daughter stolen (and his money), being kicked, called names, spat upon, and having his business thwarted by the prejudiced Christians is evil enough, but to top it all off, all of Shylock’s wealth and possessions are taken or are put into trust by them, (IV, i, 302-360) and he is denied his bond, something that is rightly his, all because he is Jewish. Through events, several forms of prejudice, an awful thing that has and will remain in the world forever and can prevent us from seeing the truth, are revealed.
Hate and vengeance are both cyclical phenomena, in that in most cases, they require a trigger to start. Throughout the play, Gratiano is depicted as a fool, punning, making witty remarks and joking around. However, after seeing that Shylock plans to kill Antonio, (IV, i) he becomes bitter and vengeful, as is shown by his words: “Beg that thou may’st have leave to hang thyself / And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state, / Thou hast not left the value of a cord; / Therefore thou must be hang’d at the state’s charge.” (IV, i, 361-364) “A halter gratis; nothing else, for God’s sake!” (IV, i, 376). Gratiano’s outbursts can be seen as sudden impulses that cease after a while, which many people will or already have experienced at some point in their lives. Shylock’s hate however, does not stem from sudden impulses, but rather from long-term abuse, especially from Antonio. “’Fair sir, you spat on me Wednesday last; / You spurn’d me such a day; another time / You call’d me dog”. (I, iii, 122-124) His passionate hate will not cease with time. “I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” (I, iii, 43). Throughout the court scene, (IV, i) Portia, knowing that Shylock’s bond has a flaw and that she can save Antonio because of a loophole in the law, withholds the truth and gives Shylock many chances to show mercy and take the principal instead of having his bond. Shylock however, is set on having his bond no matter what, demonstrating that his hate and vengeance run very deep for Antonio. Gratiano and Shylock demonstrate a very important aspect of human nature: people will not feel hatred or vengeance until wrong is done unto them or their loved ones.
Love is kind and is compassionate when it is true, but when it is not, it is simply used as convenience or as a tool. Bassanio’s love for Portia is an example of convenience “love”. At the start of the play, he is greatly indebted to Antonio, and tells him that his “chief care / Is, to come fairly off