And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt
Would make me sad. (I.i.20-23)
In the first scene of the play, Solanio speculates that Antonio might be sad because his wealth is tied up in ships, which can be risky investments. That money problems are his first thought, not family problems, romantic problems, or any other kind of personal crisis, suggests that money and wealth dominate the lives and minds of these Venetians. Though Antonio goes on to deny that his sadness stems from anxiety about his investments, the way that problems of wealth influence the course of the play confirm the importance of money and wealth in this Venetian society.
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets.
“My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter! (II.viii.15-19)
Solanio recounts Shylock’s reaction of Jessica’s disappearance to Salarino with disgust, describing Shylock as sub-human because of his supposed preoccupation with money over family. This moment exemplifies the hypocrisy of the Christian community’s hatred for Shylock; they condemn him for seeking wealth, yet they are equally preoccupied with their finances. Solanio recognizes the worst of himself and his community in Shylock’s greed, so he and his friends make Shylock into a villain to distance themselves.
For herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her custom: it is still her use
To let the wretched man outlive his wealth, (IV.i.279-281)
Antonio tells his friends not to grieve his death after Portia, disguised as Balthazar, asks him for a few last words before Shylock harvests his pound of flesh. He explains that he’s better off dead anyways since all his business ventures have failed, implying that he considers wealth to be the most important part of life despite his speeches about friendship and his condemnation of Shylock’s greed. The paradox of revelation is that Antonio finds himself in this position because he valued his friendship with Bassanio over his finances.
You take my house when you do that the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live. (IV.i.391-393)
During Shylock’s sentencing, he makes a pragmatic argument for wealth, explaining that, in a commercial society like Venice, a person cannot pursue nobler values such a family, friendship, or love without being financially secure. If a person values their life, they must value money, the means by which they live. Unlike the Christian men of Venetian society, trying to appear above valuing wealth doesn’t preoccupy him. Shylock sees wealth as intractable in the pursuit of life, while the Christian merchants follow a code of manners that forces them to pretend that worrying about money is beneath them.
He is well paid that is well satisfied (IV.i.433)
Portia, disguised as Balthazar, refuses payment from Bassanio and Antonio after she defeats Shylock in court. She reasons that the satisfaction of doing right is payment enough for her. Portia, who lives in Belmont, does not live by the same values as the men of Venetian commerce. In Venice, money is paramount, while in Belmont human interaction, such as love, rules.
In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair and—fairer than that word— Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages. Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued To Cato’s daughter, Brutus' Portia. Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth, For the four winds blow in from every coast Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strand, And many Jasons come in quest of her. O my Antonio, had I but the means To hold a rival place with one of them, I have a mind presages me such thrift That I should questionless be fortunate! (A I, s i)
Bassanio speaks to Antonio about his plan to court Portia. While Bassanio reveals he likes Portia’s beauty and good character, he proposes this plan more as a means to gain wealth and fix his money problems. Bassanio speaks specifically of Portia’s widely known wealth. Even though Bassanio mentions Portia’s virtues and seems genuinely interested in marrying her, he outwardly admits that her wealth motivates him. Bassanio’s character shows how wealth and greed often coincide with other human motivations.
You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are. And yet for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing. It is no mean happiness, therefore, to be seated in the mean. Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer. (A I, s ii)
Nerissa makes a case to Portia about the human costs of wealth, comparing the effects of adversity and prosperity. Portia, a rich heiress, has told Nerissa of feeling miserable as she contemplates choosing her husband according to her father’s will. Nerissa explains to Portia that she believes that having too much money can cause just as many problems as not having enough money. She continues by saying that those who live the longest are typically somewhere in the middle in terms of wealth. Nerissa identifies the theme of wealth and greed as she recognizes that Portia’s wealth comes with its share of challenges.
All that glisters is not gold— Often have you heard that told. Many a man his life hath sold But my outside to behold. Gilded tombs do worms enfold. Had you been as wise as bold, Young in limbs, in judgment old, Your answer had not been inscrolled. Fare you well . . . (A II, s vii)
The Prince of Morocco reads a scroll he finds inside the gold box he chose in his attempt to win Portia’s hand in marriage. The text informs the suitor who opens the box not only of his incorrect choice but also of his flawed thinking. Portia’s father, who created this test, tries to make an important point about greed and wealth through the message he left in the golden box. Portia’s father tests his daughter’s suitors on their greed by making the gold box an incorrect choice, clearly stating that life is about more than wealth.