It is perhaps apt to believe that William Shakespeare was well aware of the society, culture, mentality, thoughts and aspirations of the people of the Elizabethan era, especially around the turn of the century, and we see that quite vividly in this play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. In this summary, we will look at the core issues which surround this play.
The central issue in the entire play is that of money, as we see some reference to it with every character we come across in the story. From the moment the play opens, we see Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title worried about his business ventures and the fact that all his fortune has been invested in his trade and some of his transactions have not yet materialized. Bassanio, his best friend, has squandered all his own wealth and only has the heritage of a rich family’s name, now frequently borrows money from Antonio to upkeep his lavish lifestyle. But Bassanio intends to marry a rich heiress in order to cancel all his debts. Antonio, though with no ready cash, has a good credit record and borrows money [3000 ducats] against an agreement for his friend from a Jewish usurer. Jews also being rich [due to their business of usury], and are down-right misers, manage to thus survive in a society of filthy rich people. On the opposite end of this capitalist social system are people like Launcelot Gobbo [Shylock’s servant] who complains to his visiting father that he is ‘famished in his service’.
In Elizabethan England at the turn into the 17th Century, there was a considerably strong element of religious belief. There was the predominant Anglican Protestants and the Roman Catholics [slowly decreasing] as the monarchy declared Anglican Protestant Christianity as the official religion and all others as Heresy. In the midst of such a society, it is understandable how the small minorities like the Jews would be treated. Shakespeare used this element to symbolize religious sectarianism in his play.
PREJUDICE & HATRED
As well as religious sectarianism, there is a strong element of hatred and prejudice which we see in the play. Jews in Elizabethan England were confined to ghettos in areas outside the main city. After sundown, the iron gates which separated the ghettos from the city areas were locked till sunrise the next day. Jews would not be allowed to become full members of society and therefore would not be allowed to have legal employments or businesses. As a result, those Jews who had no means of income resorted to usury [lending out large sums of money for interest]. The element of hatred is very clearly seen whenever Antonio and Shylock meet in the main market. We know this because Antonio refers to him as ‘cut throat dog’, ‘stranger cur’ and we come across an instant where he even spits on Shylock’s gabardine. And despite all that, Antonio goes and signs a bond against a loan from this same ‘stranger cur’.
But when the Jew fights back, it is regarded as a felony in this society of Elizabethan England, and the society’s punishment is such that the audience is made to feel for the Jew.
However, not all Jews are treated like this. The young generation does not suffer what those like Shylock do. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica is in love with a Christian, Lorenzo and Lorenzo loves her even though she is a Jewess [but that’s perhaps because she is a young & good looking lady].
ROLE OF WOMEN
Apart from the instances which show Lorenzo and Jessica, there is very little role of women in Venice. It is a mostly masculine world. On the other hand, in Belmont, there is entirely a different scenario, but, never-the-less, the male dominance exists there too. We see that after her father’s demise, Portia is bound by following her father’s will whereby she must use his prescribed method of choosing her life partner [the method of the caskets]. The reason for this is perhaps, even in Elizabethan England, women were still 2nd class citizens and their rights were very limited. To show an outright female dominance would be difficult for the people to comprehend and digest, let alone accept and enjoy.
The femininity and loyalty to the spouse is clearly evident in the play. Portia, after marriage to Bassanio, not only lets Bassanio use her wealth justly, but recognizes the loyalty which Bassanio has for Antonio and is ready to pay whatever price in order to free her husband’s best friend from the financial crisis that he is in.
RULE OF LAW
The Legal aspect of the play is very strong as we see in the play. But, then again, it is because it is the word of a Jew against a Christian in a Christian society - a society in which Jews are not allowed to legally earn a living [basically depriving them of any rights, whatsoever] and because a Christian’s life is on the line. The aspect of the bond signed by Antonio entitles Shylock to only a pound of flesh. Furthermore, accusing or trying to bring harm to a citizen by a non-citizen is punishable. But, then again, if you are determined to penalize regardless, then you can make the law as strong as you want and use whatever clause you want in order to prove your point.