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Justice And Prosperity In Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice

1562 words - 6 pages


One of the strengths of good theater is its ability to mirror the problems and conditions shaping its time. In The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare reflects two important aspects of Elizabethan society: the corrupting influence of prosperity and the increasingly vengeful nature of Venetian justice. To address the former issue, Shakespeare downplays the importance of wealth by associating its involvement in romance with superficial and insubstantial advantages. He characterizes prosperity as a deceiving agent, citing its ability to introduce shallowness into a relationship. Shakespeare reasons that genuine romance depends on sacrifice and emotion, not wealth. The problem with justice is equally striking. In the play, justice is easily exploited as an instrument for revenge due to its exacting nature. The use of compassion and humanity, however, allows the law to be administered both fairly and justly. A reflection of the social tensions of his time, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explores how romance becomes more genuine without the influence of money, and how justice proceeds more effectively through the ideals of mercy and reconciliation, not vengeance.

Shakespeare diminishes the importance of wealth by underemphasizing its role in the love interests of the protagonists, who use wealth simply to achieve superficial gains in their relationships. After squandering his savings on his extravagant lifestyle, Bassanio plans a secret trip to win the heart of Portia and "…questionless be fortunate…" (I.i.183). To finance his voyage, he borrows money from Shylock under Antonio’s good name. Here, the role of wealth in Bassanio’s relationship is limited and insubstantial. It simply creates artificial emotions in the noble and provides him with financial assistance for traveling to Belmont. These contributions to romance are insignificant compared to the "…fair speechless messages" (I.i.171) Bassanio received from Portia’s eyes. Wealth, therefore, has a flimsy grasp on romance that can easily be overcome with genuine affection. The same is true for Jessica, who steals her father’s gold before she elopes with Lorenzo. After discovering this, Shylock cries out, "My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter!" (II.viii.15). By associating the antagonist with twisted ideals, Shakespeare creates a stark contrast between the corruption of wealth and the genuineness of love. This contrast reiterates the superficiality of wealth and suggests that its overemphasis can lead to corruption and decay in a relationship.

The drawbacks of money are even more treacherous, because they possess a tendency to shroud true romance with deceptive characteristics. This conflict between shadow and substance emerges when Portia’s suitors attempt to discover the correct casket by relating the characteristics of the different caskets with their conceptions of romance. The Prince of Morocco, for example, selects the golden casket, associating its beauty with...

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