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Literary Analysis of The merchant of Venice

From Shakespeare's The merchant of Venice by Margaret Hill McCarter. Topeka: Crane & Co.

"To live for a universal end is not merely desirable, but necessary, and forms the basis of moral action."
The drama of The Merchant of Venice is a legendary comedy, whose main action is so nearly tragical that the play barely escapes becoming a tragedy. It may be further classified as external, since its conflict lies in the realm of reality and is developed by natural rather than supernatural means. Its time relation falls in the palmy days of Venetian greatness, before the enterprise of Da Gama had made the front door of Europe to open on the Atlantic ocean, leaving the Mediterranean seaports to be only unimportant side-entrances. From busy Venice the scene shifts to Belmont, whose name in literal derivation, beautiful mountain is strikingly suggestive.

The purpose of the drama is to set forth the main conflict between the right to property and the right to human life; and the lesser conflict between the will of the parent and the child's right of choice. The play divides itself easily into two lines of action: the strife in Venice, and the strife in Belmont. But so closely interwoven are the interests of the two that they stand each to the other in the relation of means to an end.

It is the business of the first act to develop the sealing of a bond between Antonio, the merchant, and Shylock, the usurer. The purpose of this compact on Antonio's part is to assist Bassanio to follow a winning suit for Portia, - a favor that in the retribution of good deeds will come back a hundred fold, through Portia, to Antonio. On the part of the Jew it is to get a hold over an enemy whom the Jew hates, and whom through legal means he intends to destroy. When the time comes for canceling the bond, although thrice the amount of the debt is offered to Shylock, he still insists upon his pound of flesh, which by the statutes of Venice he may claim. He proposes to hold in strict justice to the letter of the law though all humanity cry out against it. Hence there arises the struggle between the right of the creditor to his property and the right to human existence. But the struggle has a deeper root than a mere question of right and wrong in the business world. It is primarily a spiritual conflict between Christianity as represented by Antonio and Judaism in the person of Shylock. With this broader basis the play takes on a more vital importance.

The second act sets forth the conditions under which the beautiful Portia may be wooed and won. These are, that the suitor shall choose out of three caskets the one containing Portia's picture; failing in this, he shall agree not to wed any woman. No account is taken of Love, which is the sacred basis upon which the family is built. It is the old, old story of the struggle between parental will and the right to individual choice.

These two conflicts in the play, tending to disrupt the family and through the tragical power of the law to destroy human life, are to be happily overcome, else the poet would sink from holding the grand ethical power of the teacher into the mere office of the sensationalist. Such defection Shakespeare never permits. The love conflict must be mediated, and what seemed through parental authority to rest upon chance must be subjected to the higher right of the will of Portia.

In the third act comes the mediation of the minor struggle. When the lovers meet, certain influences are about Bassanio to lead him to a wise choice. Because he really loves Portia and she in turn loves him, he has the right to claim her over all singling-out of caskets. Moreover, it is because he loves her, and losing her, cannot love another, that he will choose aright, for his heart is centered on internal worth and not external show. It is not for her wealth, although she is
"A lady richly left,"
nor yet for her beauty, though
"Her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,"
but because she has "wondrous virtues" that Bassanio loves her most. Under the spell of that influence that sees the merit of genuine and enduring affection, that spirit that binds two souls "so long as they both shall live," he will ignore the gold and silver caskets for the leaden one.

But Bassanio has most direction from Portia herself. At the last moment she rises above parental authority, since that authority would subject her to the cruel chance of wedlock without love and so profane and destroy the sweet and holy marriage rite and the sacred institution of the family. By the introduction of a skillfully worded song, whose purport is to urge a disregard for outward appearance, she adroitly leads Bassanio to choose the leaden casket. She becomes herself the mediator of the conflict, and the two are happily married. But the thing was made possible by the generosity of Antonio, who for this generosity is now about to give up his life.

Portia then owes a duty to Antonio, which her recent struggle between her right to love Bassanio and her allegiance to her dead father has prepared her to more intelligently perform. So the fourth act brings on the famous trial scene, when Life and Law hang in the scales. But since Law exists to protect and not to destroy, a way out of the dilemma must be found. The conflict turns upon a mere form of law, yet the force of that form cannot be gainsaid. Here Portia again becomes mediator, - first because of her deep obligation to Antonio for her highest happiness; secondly, because, being a woman, she can best plead for mercy; and lastly, as before stated, because her power to judge for her own welfare has given her an insight into the difference between the strictest justice and human obligations. After appealing in vain to Shylock's sense of humanity, and after offering treble the debt in ducats, she turns Shylock's weapon upon himself, which will as surely destroy him as it will his enemy. For the letter of the law upon which the Jew has hung would in turn brand him a murderer and destroy him with his victim. So there comes instead a reconciliation of wrong, and merited but not unbearable punishment falls upon the guilty.

The purpose of the fifth act is to round out the play harmoniously. It has been called a "musical afterpiece." In the idyllic picture of the life at Belmont, separated families are reunited, differences are adjusted, and a serenity like a summer sunset falls upon the mind.

The analysis now concerns itself with one more theme, i.e., the study of individual characters. Of these there are two great types, - the Jew and the wife. The antithesis of the Jew is Antonio, who serves in the drama to personify Christianity as exemplified in the business world. The play, it may be said, has nothing to do with the dogmas of religion, but with the effects of religion as realized in daily life.

Antonio is a merchant, whose chief aim is to enjoy his wealth and to make it assist others. He loans money without interest. He is surrounded by friends, because his nature begets friendship. He is the type of mercy toward all mankind except to the Jew, whom he despises. In this he is one with his time, for the Venetian of that day despised all Jews and held all bankers in contempt. For his lack of mercy toward Shylock, Antonio is justly punished with enduring for a time both loss of property and apprehension of his own doom.

Over against Antonio is Shylock, the exponent of Judaism. Few portraits in literature are so faithfully and so exquisitely drawn. In the Christian civilization in which Shylock finds himself he cannot combine with those whom he meets. Mark now the contrast between him and Antonio. He is a usurer, his business in life being to acquire property. Today one suffers no loss of reputation by being a banker. The banking business is now a necessary adjunct to the commercial prosperity of a commonwealth. In the age of Shylock it was a legitimate but disreputable calling. Among his associates on the Rialto he has no friends. The effect of his character is to disrupt his own home. Neither his daughter nor his servant can reason themselves into any allegiance to him. The action of Jessica, so at variance with Portia's loyalty, would shock us were it not for our appreciation of Jessica's environment and its lack of moral influences.

Shylock is the embodiment of justice. It is inherent in his nature not to know mercy. None is ever shown to him, and belonging as he does to a "chosen people," he owes nothing to the Gentile. In business and religion, then, Shylock is under a ban. The object of centuries of injustice and abuse, he is the very incarnation of hatred. He holds rigidly to the law, for the reason that it is all the protection he has, and for the further reason that his religion is one of stern obedience to form. He would murder Antonio, legally, because Antonio stands for all that he hates, and personally because of Antonio's ill-treatment of himself. He declares:
"I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that, in low simplicity,
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
* * * * * * * *
He hates our sacred nation; and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate.
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest."
But Shylock is no stupid, brutal, miserly thief. He is the shrewdest man in all the caste. Being a Jew, his end is "his bargains and his well-won thrift." Being a Jew, he demands only what by law is his. Being a Jew, he knows nothing of that "charity that seeketh not her own." And being a Jew, "he sees quite through the deeds of 'Christian' men." Very adroitly has Shakespeare made him the mouthpiece for railing against the un-Christlike traits of those who rank as Christians. In his plea for his bond he aims a powerful blow at all the cruel oppression his race has suffered from those who claim the leadership of the Man of Galilee:
"He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
There is a sting here that the truth sharpens, and we are more willing - in fact, we demand, after this - that mercy, the mercy Shylock himself refused to grant, shall nevertheless be shown to him, that earthly power "might in this show likest God's."

One more character remains to be considered. Shakespeare seems in Portia to have realized his best conception of womanliness. There is in her makeup a sweetness and dignity and tenderness that characterizes her as belonging to the highest type of womanhood. Wherever she moves there emanates the grace of one "to the manor born," the resultant of wealth and luxurious elegance. Added to these is a fine mentality. Self-reliance, wit, clear judgment, penetration, firmness, hopefulness and mercy combine in her to form a superior character. Because she typifies the true wife, all Bassanio's interests are hers, and she whom heretofore "the winds of heaven have not visited too roughly," whose "foot has fallen on softness" and whose "eye has lighted on splendor," undertakes a most daring and difficult task. It is for her to liberate Antonio.

She is in the play the representative of the family, the basis of the other human institutions. She is therefore the fit instrument to save Antonio, who represents society under the constitution of the New Testament. She does her work with such intelligence and skill that dire tragedy melts into smoothest comedy. Because of what she is and what she stands for, among the fine feminine characters in literature it may be said of her, "Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all."

In summing up, the play develops certain points. Through it runs a thread of artistic and idyllic charm, a subtle sense of refinement, an absence of rude and vulgar intrusions. There seems to be reflected in it something of the quiet, harmonious beauty that Shakespeare knew in his boyhood surroundings in the bypaths between the hawthorn hedges of the Warwickshire countryside. The story of the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, like the friendship of David and Jonathan, appeals to the common heart of humanity.

The picture of womanhood in strength and sweetness, of power that is uplifting and grace that is ennobling, of love that is divine, and sympathy that is broad and deep, reveals a personality that can never lose its charm, because its attributes are universal.

The realized Judaism and realized Christianity lying back of the property conflict in the drama present a clash of universal principles of the Old Testament against the New. The final triumph of the spirit that embodies in its prayer the earnest petition, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," has given to this play the popularity it has always known. For the play as well as the individual must live for universal ends, else the virtue of each soon disappears and the memory of each is buried among the unmarked graves that swallow up the multitude.

How to cite this article:
McCarter, Margaret Hill. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Topeka: Crane & Co, 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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The Trial. From Shakespeare's comedy of the Merchant of Venice. Illus. Sir James D. Linton.