How does Shakespeare explore the theme of love against self-interest in the Merchant of Venice?

Last Updated: 21 Mar 2023
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How does Shakespeare explore the theme of love against self-interest in the Merchant of Venice? In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare explores the themes of love and self-interest; the characters own self-interests seem to conquer all feelings of affection towards other characters through money, revenge and spite. The play is about a Christian merchant called Antonio who borrows money from a Jewish money lender called Shylock; hence his friend Bassanio can seek the women he claims to love in the fictional place of Belmont.

However, Shylock creates a bond which states that if Antonio does not pay back the money lent to him, Shylock shall receive a pound of Antonio’s flesh. In order to understand the characters’ conflicting emotions and incentives, it is important to understand the definitions of love and self-interest.

For now, I will define love as an altruistic affection for someone that may provoke sacrificial acts. As for self-interest, I think this can contrastingly be defined as an egotistical focus on one’s own needs and desires, regardless of those around you. Love is demonstrated in the play by acts of devotion.

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Portia helps save Antonio from a gruesome death by dressing up as a man and a lawyer. This is an act of devotion towards Bassanio because she is trying to help a man she does not know in order to satisfy Bassanio. She says “I have within my mind a thousand raw trick of these bragging jacks, which I will practice”.

This illustrates her affection for Bassanio because she immediately forms a biased opinion of the men unknown to her who threaten Antonio’s – Bassanio’s greatest friend’s- safety. Shakespeare uses the word “raw” meaning rude to imply how mean Portia wants to be to these men hurting Antonio.

The fact that she is so passionately against these men leads us to believe that Portia cares a great deal for Antonio’s welfare. Portia’s apparent care for Antonio illustrates her affection for Bassanio who regards Antonio highly as a ‘dear friend’.

This affection is increased to the extent that it could be called love as Portia sacrifices her own time, safety and comfort, by traveling a great distance and illegally impersonating a lawyer. However it is debatable as to whether the character of Portia helps Antonio in order to condemn Shylock because he is a Jew.

Anti-Semitism and the conflict between Jews and Christians highlights the key theme of self-interest. For example, one could question if Lorenzo only marries Jessica to spite her father because of his religion. He states “Here dwells my father Jew”.

The word dwell is often associated with beasts living in caves and therefore shows that Lorenzo dislikes Shylock and finds him uncivilised. Also, he uses the word “father” which literally means Lorenzo is Shylocks son which is not true. Dramatically, this particular line is often portrayed sarcastically, giving new meaning to the word “father”.

This sarcasm demonstrates that Lorenzo thinks it humorous that Shylock is, or will be, his father in law because he doesn’t like him. This acts in contrast to the common perception of the strength father-son relationships.

It also implies that as a son, Lorenzo will receive an inheritance or dowry from Shylock, foreshadowing the future as Jessica steals Shylocks gold and jewels for Lorenzo when she runs away with him. Next, the word ‘Jew’, referring to Shylock’s religion Judaism is used with no definite or indefinite article before it.

This could be portrayed as insulting towards Shylock as by using no article, Lorenzo has made the word bitter like he struggles with himself to speak it. This emphasises Lorenzo’s dislike for Shylock and turns his feelings into hate.

Through understanding the effects of all these language choices, it is debatable as to whether Lorenzo and Jessica’s relationship is genuine or simply a contrivance created to spite Shylock. The fact that Jessica brings Shylock’s money to Lorenzo links to how money is often associated with self-interest and we can compare the power of avarice over that of love. Shylock cries ‘O, my ducats!

O, my daughter’. This initially indicates that he values his money over his daughter, implying that his greed outweighs his love. However, when we see Shylock later on he appears more hurt by the fact that his daughter sold a ring, which was given to him by his late wife, than he is by the loss of the ring’s value.

He says ‘I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys’. The fact that a “wilderness of monkeys” would be large and valuable shows a softer side of Shylock which we can sympathise with, and shows that sometimes love and the tokens of that love, matter more to him than his covetous egotism.

In conclusion, I think that if we think of the love in Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’, where the “star-crossed lovers” –Romeo and Juliet- value each other’s lives above their own in their extreme self-sacrifice, then I do not think this type of love exists in the Merchant of Venice.

However, if we define love as a feeling of affection for another individual then we see this clearly, although not without its drawbacks. For instance, although Portia and Bassanio claim to love one

another, Bassanio seeks Portia in the first place because he is greatly in debt and needs her money. Also, Shylock argues that Jews are human beings just like Christians. He says “If you prick us, do we not bleed? ”

Nevertheless, Christians like Lorenzo hate Jews simply because they are Jews. Therefore, although Christians seem to speak more about mercy and love, they do not exhibit these qualities regularly, producing the debate as to whether love in this play is merely a false pretence for self-interest and spite.

Related Questions

on How does Shakespeare explore the theme of love against self-interest in the Merchant of Venice?

How is the theme of love explored in The Merchant of Venice?
The theme of love is explored in The Merchant of Venice through the relationships between the characters. The play focuses on the love between Portia and Bassanio, as well as the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio. Additionally, the play explores the idea of love as a form of justice, as Portia uses her wit and knowledge to save Antonio from Shylock's bond.
Who is the love interest in The Merchant of Venice?
The love interest in The Merchant of Venice is Portia, a wealthy heiress. She is the object of affection for both Bassanio and Prince of Morocco, and ultimately chooses Bassanio as her husband.
Is there a conflict of love and self interest in the story The Merchant of Venice?
Yes, there is a conflict of love and self interest in The Merchant of Venice. The main character, Antonio, is in love with Bassanio, but he also has to make a difficult decision when he agrees to borrow money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to help Bassanio. Antonio must choose between his love for Bassanio and his own self-interest in order to protect his own financial security.
What is the theme of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare?
The main theme of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is the conflict between mercy and justice. The play explores the idea of mercy and justice in the context of a court case, and ultimately suggests that mercy is more powerful than justice.

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How does Shakespeare explore the theme of love against self-interest in the Merchant of Venice?. (2016, Jul 24). Retrieved from

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