William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explained with scene summaries in just a few minutes!
Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
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A parable illustrating the consequences of greed and usury, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is among the most controversial of his plays.
The comedy centers on Antonio, who has extended credit to his friend Bassanio so that he may pursue the beautiful Portia. But in order to do so, Antonio must use the services of Jewish money lender Shylock.
When Bassanio arrives to seek Portia’s hand in marriage, he finds that money will not be enough. Portia’s father has created a challenge to choose a suitor for her. He has set up three caskets, or boxes. The man who chooses the casket with Portia’s portrait inside gets her hand. Luckily, he chooses correctly.
Unfortunately, when Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock takes him to court in an effort to collect on his debt—which, in the absence of monetary compensation, will take the form of a pound of flesh.
When Shylock will not agree to mercy, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and finds that should Shylock take Antonio’s blood, which is not part of the contract, his own life will be forfeit. Since it is impossible to take a pound of flesh without spilling blood, Shylock’s claim is void. The result finds Shylock losing his fortune to Antonio and the state.
This comedy is often characterized as blatantly anti-Semitic, which is supported by the rampant anti-Jewish sentiment of the day. While to modern eyes this reads as astonishingly stereotypical, the play remains valuable for its somewhat sympathetic depiction of the slings and arrows endured by European Jews.
Famous playwright William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596-97 at the height of his career. Borrowing from existing Italian and medieval stories for the characters and basic plot, his characterization of the Jewish Shylock and “Christian” Venetians highlights social, religious, and moral tensions of the time.
The Merchant of Venice contains many powerful symbols including rings symbolizing the strongest of human bonds, flesh representing life which is more valuable when threatened, and gold symbolizing power and status. Other themes include appearances versus reality, worth, prejudice, and mercy.
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