The study of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1605) (Merchant) has illuminated the notion that individualistic desires lead not to the human experience of self-betterment, but instead on the experience of fragmented identity and relationships. Inspired by his Elizabethan context, Shakespeare challenges the ‘impartial’ justice system by revealing the resulting experiences of discrimination. Furthermore, Merchant explores how materialism paradoxically leads to a loss of wealth and genuine relationships. In response to Merchant, the audience comes to understand the anomaly that is Portia as a woman who supersedes a male, Christian world’s rules.
Discrimination is a pertinent human experience constant throughout history. Shakespeare highlights the way our treatment of others is shaped by prejudice and stereotypes. Venice is presented as a city of prejudice and a pronounced social class structure, in which Shylock the Jew is shunned due to his religion. Shylock appeals to the humanity of his audience: “Hath not a Jew’s eye? If you prick us do we not bleed?” His incessant rhetorical questioning places emphasis on his distress, challenging society’s customary contempt for minorities. Shakespeare shines light on the institutionalised anti-Semitism of the time by giving a voice to the marginalized figure of Shylock, as he is punished by his own principles. Shakespeare uses careful construction of the play in order to force Shylock to barter for his own life eluding to the treatment and commodification of people and relationships as exchangeable goods. Shylock pleads the link between his property and his life which further commodifies his life “That doth sustain my house; you take my life When you do take the means whereby I live.” This eludes to the Jewish stereotype that wealth is invaluable to life. In a final undermining of Shylock, he is stripped of his religion itself “In christening thou (Shylock) should have two godfathers.” Shakespeare has stripped Shylock of everything he holds dear, elements of dark humour allude to the figurative death Shylock has experienced “A halter gratis, nothing else, for God’s sake.” Halter Gratis meaning a hanging rope, is the only possession left for Shylock as generously provided to him by the state. Shakespeare presents this as a victory for Christianity, using darker undertones, Shakespeare sheds light on the normalised prejudice of the time. We see Shylock experience religious discrimination from the start to the end of the play, we see it take away his humanity providing insight into the human experience. The story presented can showcase parallels of religious discrimination still relevant in a contemporary context, sending strong messages to the audience.
Shakespeare also illuminates the human experience of loss of identity and relationship in his exploration of materialism. Set in Venice, the wealthy centre of trade between Europe and the East of the time, Shakespeare begins his examination of the commodification of relationships in Act 2 Scene 7 against the lavish backdrop of Belmont. The casket motif in “all that glitters is not gold” reveals how the suitor’s prioritisation of materials goods over a genuine marriage with Portia results in a lack of authentic human connection. Furthermore, the materialistic characterisation of Shylock as a usurer, enables Shakespeare’s continued critique of materialism. Through parallel sentence structures and repetition in “O my ducats … O my daughter … my ducats and my daughter” Shakespeare highlights how Shylock’s commodification of his relationship with his daughter has resulted in a disconnect between the two individuals. The anaphora in “Nay you take my life and all … you take my house, you take my life” continues this critique, with Shakespeare revealing how Shylock’s loss of wealth also results in his loss of identity. Thus Shakespeare illuminates the human experience of fragmented relationships and identity through a critique of materialism in Merchant.
The characterisation of Portia as a strong heroine allows Shakespeare to challenge the traditional gender stereotypes with her cross-dressing of Balthazar allowing her to embody both stereotypically feminine and masculine traits. Portia’s struggle then, is as an anomaly of a woman seeking independence in a male Christian world, paralleling Queen Elizabeth, herself a woman who has subverted the patrilineal line of Kings to become the ‘Virgin Queen’ of England. Initially, in Portia’s introduction in I.ii, she oxymoronically introduces herself as “a living daughter curbed by a dead father,” emphasising the futility of her individual desire in the face of a patriarchal society. Likewise, in marrying Bassanio, Portia debases herself. Where she had been the “lord”, and a metaphorical “Queen over herself”, she is now a belonging of her husband to whom she must submit. As such, central to Portia’s subversion of the patriarchal power that governs her life is the manipulation of the symbolic ‘Ring’ which she originally bestows upon Bassanio, “when this ring parts from this finger, then parts life from hence,” as a representation of his ‘ownership’ of herself and her estate. Yet, in assuming the gender-ambivalent role of the ‘Doctor’ of Law, she demands from Bassanio “What ring gave you my lord?” the ring which he cannot produce. In doing so, the power dynamic between the male and female roles are inverted, especially in Bassanio’s unconvincing verbal irony that Portia would have “begged” him to “give the worth doctor” her ring. In restoring the ring, the symbol of Christian fidelity, she secures Bassanio’s loyalty, “I never more will break an oath with thee,” by appropriating Antonio’s male friendship through her demand, “Give him this and bid him keep it better…” In partial restoration of her autonomy, Portia with her intelligence and her wit, thus exist as a female anomaly. By successfully subverting the patriarchy and transcending gender roles, she demonstrates that it is possible to undermine the collective experience while also living as a part of society.
In Merchant, Shakespeare explored the individualistic desires of justice, materialism and transcending of gender roles to illuminate the negative experiences of discrimination and loss of identity but also reveal the freedom experienced as a result of rejecting societal limitations.