The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare

Point of View

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare uses location and gender to frame point of view, creating a split between male-dominated Venice and woman-controlled Belmont. Venice represents a place where matters of business and law predominate. Belmont, by contrast, represents a place where matters of love and marriage take center stage. The play’s first three acts oscillate between the two locations, alternating between the risky business ventures in Venice and the marriage trials in Belmont. Act IV’s long courtroom scene brings the Venetian plot to a crisis point. The conflict between Shylock and Antonio comes to its head in this scene, and resolution arrives with the judge ultimately deciding in Antonio’s favor. The Belmont-framed plot has a more complicated structure. In one sense, this plot resolves at the end of Act III, when Bassanio chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand. In another sense, however, this plot develops a new complication in Act V, when Bassanio breaks his promise never to relinquish Portia’s ring. The eventual resolution of this secondary complication allows the play to end with a qualified celebration of love in which women hold the ultimate power.

In addition to location and gender, religion also plays an important role in framing point of view. Merchant stages a conflict between Christian and Jewish outlooks. Considering that Shylock and his daughter Jessica represent the only Jewish characters, the play’s religious conflict is out of balance. It seems inevitable, then, when the Christian point of view wins out. Not only does Jessica steal away from her father to marry Lorenzo, a Christian, but Shylock himself is also ultimately ordered to convert to Christianity. Both Jewish characters disappear from the play before the final act. This is significant, because it means that the Jewish point of view effectively vanishes from the play, ensuring Christianity its dominant position. And yet, the events of Act V trouble the dominance of the Christian point of view, and the paradigm of Christian marriage in particular. Both Bassanio and Gratiano break their first vows to their new wives. Although neither man engages in anything so damning as adultery, their shared failure to be true to their wives’ demands undermines the sanctity of these new marriages and the Christian paradigm such marriages are meant to uphold.