Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Merchant of Venice depends heavily upon laws and rules—the laws of the state of Venice and the rules stipulated in contracts and wills. Laws and rules can be manipulated for cruel or wanton purposes, but they are also capable of producing good when executed by the right people. Portia’s virtual imprisonment by the game of caskets seems, at first, like a questionable rule at best, but her likening of the game to a lottery system is belied by the fact that, in the end, it works perfectly. The game keeps a host of suitors at bay, and of the three who try to choose the correct casket to win Portia’s hand, only the man of Portia’s desires succeeds. By the time Bassanio picks the correct chest, the choice seems like a more efficient indicator of human nature than any person could ever provide. A similar phenomenon occurs with Venetian law. Until Portia’s arrival, Shylock is the law’s strictest adherent, and it seems as if the city’s adherence to contracts will result in tragedy. However, when Portia arrives and manipulates the law most skillfully of all, the outcome is the happiest ending of all, at least to an Elizabethan audience: Antonio is rescued and Shylock forced to abandon his religion. The fact that the trial is such a close call does, however, raise the fearful specter of how the law can be misused. Without the proper guidance, the law can be wielded to do horrible things.
Twice in the play, daring escapes are executed with the help of cross-dressing. Jessica escapes the tedium of Shylock’s house by dressing as a page, while Portia and Nerissa rescue Antonio by posing as officers of the Venetian court. This device was not only familiar to Renaissance drama, but essential to its performance: women were banned from the stage and their parts were performed by prepubescent boys. Shakespeare was a great fan of the potentials of cross-dressing and used the device often, especially in his comedies. But Portia reveals that the donning of men’s clothes is more than mere comedy. She says that she has studied a “thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,” implying that male authority is a kind of performance that can be imitated successfully (III.iv.77). She feels confident that she can outwit any male competitor, declaring, “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, / And wear my dagger with the braver grace” (III.iv.64–65). In short, by assuming the clothes of the opposite sex, Portia enables herself to assume the power and position denied to her as a woman.
Like Shakespeare’s other comedies, The Merchant of Venice seems to endorse the behavior of characters who treat filial piety lightly, even though the heroine, Portia, sets the opposite example by obeying her father’s will. Launcelot greets his blind, long lost father by giving the old man confusing directions and telling the old man that his beloved son Launcelot is dead. This moment of impertinence can be excused as essential to the comedy of the play, but it sets the stage for Jessica’s far more complex hatred of her father. Jessica can list no specific complaints when she explains her desire to leave Shylock’s house, and in the one scene in which she appears with Shylock, he fusses over her in a way that some might see as tender. Jessica’s desire to leave is made clearer when the other characters note how separate she has become from her father, but her behavior after departing seems questionable at best. Most notably, she trades her father’s ring, given to him by her dead mother, for a monkey. The frivolity of this exchange, in which an heirloom is tossed away for the silliest of objects, makes for quite a disturbing image of the esteem in which The Merchant of Venice’s children hold their parents, and puts us, at least temporarily, in Shylock’s corner.