How effectively does Shakespeare explore the themes of love and hate through character in the play “The Merchant of Venice”? William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains many themes and elements that could be considered timeless. Shakespeare effectively explores the themes of love and hate through character in the play which is a play of two parts. One part follows the fortunes of Bassanio, a friend of the Merchant, Antonio, in his attempts to win the hand of Portia, the rich and beautiful heiress of Belmont.
The second part deals with the bond Antonio makes with Shylock, the wealthy Jew. Antonio agrees that if the three thousand ducats he borrows are not repaid within three months he will lose a pound of flesh in order to finance Bassanio’s courtship. Bassanio eventually wins Portia but discovers that Antonio has forfeited the bond. However, disguised as a lawyer, Portia crushes Shylock in the Venetian Court when he tries to get his pound of flesh, and the Christians return, victorious to Belmont.
The first theme love is very meaningful in the play and is first introduced through the characters Bassanio and Antonio when their friendship is explored. This is first evident in Act 1 when Bassanio acknowledges that he has been living above his income. He owes most to Antonio, but nevertheless asks him to lend still more in the hope of getting at least some of it back. Without a single thought of his own wellbeing or wealth, Antonio promises all he has. “My purse, my person, my extremest means Lie all unlocked to your occasions” 1, I, ll 138-139) In this quote, Shakespeare is attempting to stress the importance of love felt for friends, through Antonio. By using the word “unlocked” in this phrase Shakespeare is conveying the idea that Antonio is willing to do anything to help his friend when he is in need. Moreover, that Bassanio is the metaphorical ‘key’ to all in Antonio’s power. This is successful as it shows how strongly Shakespeare feels about friendship, how it should be given more importance, and about putting the ones you love before yourself.
The next theme, hate, is a very strong one within the play and is mainly portrayed through the character Shylock. Although there were moments where he appeared to be victim, he was probably the villain of this play. At the start, we see Shylock grudgingly lending Antonio money- 3000 ducats. Even though he does not like Antonio he lends him the money with the agreement that if Antonio should not be bale to pay him back within the time given, Shylock will take a pound of his flesh. “If you repay me not on such a day… Be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh…” 1, iii, ll 143-148) Here, the words “an equal pound” show that the pound of flesh is a constant reminder of rigidity of Shylock’s world; where numerical calculations are used to evaluate even the most serious of situations. I think this is very effective as Shylock never explicitly demands that Antonio die, but asks instead, in his numerical mind, for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats. Where the other characters measure their emotions with long metaphors and words, Shylock measures everything in far more prosaic and numerical quantities.
Everyone sees Shylock as evil through their eyes because of this strange bond he proposed, however, they do no see that Shylock is actually quite cunning and could have a purpose behind it. The theme hatred is also introduced when Shylocks assertion that Antonio is a ‘good’ man refers not to Antonio’s moral standing, but to his financial standing, and Shylock later says of Antonio: “How like a fawning publican he looks I hate him for he is a Christian But more, for that in law simplicity He lends out money gratis, and brings down The rate of usance here with us in Venice” 1, iii, ll 38-42) “I hate him for he is a Christian”; this makes Shylock seem to be an unpleasant character that dislikes Antonio just because he is a Christian and has different moral views. Shakespeare later shows us that Antonio’s treatment of Shylock is just as bad, for he hates Shylock for exactly the same reason; that he is of a different religion. “…he hath disgrac’d me, and hinder’d me half a million…” (3, I, ll 50 -51) I think this is very effective as Shylock is seen as the ‘bad’ guy most of the time, but later in the story we see Antonio do the same thing.
The theme of love is further developed in the play as now the fact that Bassanio’s debt is to be paid with Antonio’s flesh, it shows significance; showing how their friendship is so binding it has made them almost one. The contest for Portia’s hand, in which suitors from various countries choose among a gold, a silver, and a lead casket, presents the love Portia has for her late father; as this was a riddle he devised to decide which suitor actually wants her and not her money.
To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (2, vii, l 5) and the silver casket which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (2, vii l 7) The correct casket is lead and warns that the person who chooses it must give and risk everything he has. The contest combines a number of Christian teachings like, appearances are often deceiving, and that people should not trust the evidence provided by the senses- hence the humble appearance of the lead 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. Portia really likes Bassanio and wants him to choose the correct casket, but also loves her father, so abides by his rules and doesn’t break her oath. This develops the theme as it shows the different kind of strong love Portia has for both Bassanio and her father. However, I think the music that Portia has playing as Bassanio chooses between the caskets has significance; “Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head? ” (3, ii, ll 63-64) The theme of love this time is revealed through a song playing whilst Bassanio makes his decision, possibly to subconsciously push him in the correct direction. Moreover, we know the correct casket is Lead, and in the song, the words ‘Bred’ and ‘Head’ rhyme with Lead. Portia’s trying to hint Lead is the right choice is showing her desire for Bassanio because it is a risk she is willing to take to get the man she wants. So the contest certainly suits Bassanio, who knows he does not deserve his good fortune but is willing to risk everything on a gamble aswell.
The ring given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman named Leah, who was Shylock’s wife and Jessica’s mother, gets only a brief mention in the play, but is still 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” (3, I, ll 101-102) The lost ring allows us to see Shylock in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position and to view him as a human being capable of feeling something more than anger.
Although Shylock and Tubal discuss the ring for no more than five lines, the ring stands as an important symbol of Shylocks humanity, his ability to grieve, and his ability to love. The theme of hatred is further developed in the court scene which is one of the most important scenes in The Merchant of Venice, as this reveals a lot about Shylock and the other key characters. The overwhelming feeling is that Shylock wants justice. He lives in a community of Christians, who shun him at every opportunity and treat him like a dog.
Maybe Shylock does act villainously and inhumanely by demanding a pound of flesh, but that could be because he’s been victimised for so many years. Shylock wants justice for justice sake; even though he knows all he will ever gain is his moral victory. “…if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge…” (3, I, ll 49-50) There seems to be great bitterness in this speech, as is understandable; Bassanio might say that Antonio is the best of men, but although Antonio treats Bassanio with kindness and friendship, he treats Shylock quite the opposite.
Shylock goes on to say: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him …I stand for judgement, answer Shall I have it? ” (4, I, ll 99-103) So Shylock is after justice, a justice which has denied him and his kind for a long time. When Portia enters the court disguised as Balthasar, one of the first things she says is, “Which is the Merchant here? and which is the Jew? ” (4, I, l 173) Shakespeare put that comment in for a reason; he might be saying that neither is better than the other, nor in the laws of equality they are both the same. During the court scene Portia makes an important speech: The quality of mercy is not strain’d… It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes, Tis mightiest in the mightiest… It is an attribute to God himself…” (4, I, ll 184-194) At face value, Portia is saying that Shylock should be merciful towards Antonio, and release him from the bond, but Shakespeare is also trying to put across a message that all mankind should be merciful and accept mercy, and that nobody is entirely good or evil but a combination of both. I think this is very effective as most see only one or two characters in the play as evil, however, there are good and bad sides to everybody.
The ridiculous bond which Antonio and Shylock agree on is taken very seriously by Shylock, as he sees a pound of flesh as a fit price for revenge. Throughout the storyline, Shylock is given many opportunities to back down and lay mercy upon Antonio and taking his dignity, but Shylock chooses to stick with greed by going for it all, and in the end the theme of hate is resolved when he loses his money, his daughter and even his religion. “Two things provided more, that for this favour, He presently become a Christian; The other that he do record a gift
Here in the court of all he die possessed Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter” (4, I, ll 385-389) However, in this speech when Portia asked Antonio for what mercy Shylock can grant, before she states of how mercy is the highest quality of man, but later, when she proves Shylock wrong, she shows absolutely no mercy in laying out the punishments, completely contradicting herself. The theme of love is resolved in many ways in the final act of the play. The commonly accepted definition of a Shakespearean comedy is a play that ends happily.
The reuniting of the three pairs of lovers at the end and Antonio’s ships coming in should represent a happy ending with the comedy provided by the game Portia and Nerissa play with the rings. However, the ending of the play could seem happier than it really is. In the final act Lorenzo and Jessica are comparing their love with three disastrous love stories. They invoke Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Dido and Aenus as their models. This is ironic in the highest degree because all the invoked lovers are failures. This hearkens back to the ease with which Jessica handed over the casket in the previous acts.
Their love never underwent any form of test, either with the casket, or with the rings, which Jessica apparently trades for a monkey. Thus they in a sense condemn their love to failure like those of the failed lovers. The three pairs of lovers represent the comic ending. But what should be a happy ending is violated and broken by Antonio and Shylock. Both men remain outsiders at the end of the play, alone and removed from the happy luxury of Belmont. Shylock via the loss of his money and his daughter, Antonio by losing Bassanio to Portia.
The lowest level of Antonio’s defeat is when Portia hands him his money and ships at the end, some may see it as bringing him Portia’s loyalty and friendship, however I think it is essentially telling him to return to Venice and forget about Bassanio. “There you shall find three of your argosies Are richly come to harbour suddenly. ” (5, I, ll 276-277) The general messages that Shakespeare was trying to get across to the audiences were that prejudice and greed will never accomplish you anything, and that love will always defeat the obstacles in its path.
Love and money are alike; Shakespeare seems to be saying, in that they are blessings to those who can pursue them in the right spirit. On the other hand, those who are too possessive, too greedy, will get pleasure neither from the pursuit of romantic love nor from the accumulation of wealth. In conclusion, I feel Shakespeare has explored the themes of love and hate effectively through character in the play “The Merchant of Venice” and has successfully created a timeless classic that all people can understand and relate to.