The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare set in the 16th Century, Venice. This is a play about a Merchant, Antonio, who borrows money from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Antonio is borrowing the money for his friend, Bassanio. Antonio wishes to give the money to Bassanio so he can attempt to win the hand of Portia, a wealthy lady. When Antonio finds himself unable to repay his debt, his life is at stake and the drama unfolds. 16th Century Venice was not like the world we live in today. Although it was a very successful city, life for most people was hard.
It was a judgemental Christian city where slavery and arranged marriage were commonplace. Shakespeare uses this environment to bring out the worst in his characters. We see greed, prejudice, and revenge as each character fights for what they believe to be correct. In these surroundings, it is not difficult to find a villain but it is difficult to find a hero. So who is the true hero in the Merchant of Venice? Antonio is one of the main characters; he is the Merchant of Venice.
He is wealthy, well known, and a loyal friend to Bassanio. However, he has hatred towards Jews. Some may consider Antonio to be the hero, for borrowing three thousand ducats for his dear friend Bassanio but some may consider him as a villain due to his prejudice towards the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. When he is unable to pay his debt and his life is about to be taken he still holds the values of friendship higher than his own life:
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“And he repents not that he pays your debt,
For if the Jew do cut but deep enough
I’ll pay it instantly with all my heart”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Sc. 1, 277-279).
But I do not think Antonio can be considered a hero because although he was honorable to his friend and to Venice, his treatment of Shylock was unforgivable. Even when asking for the loan he admits his prejudice towards Shylock because he was a Jew:
“I am as like to call on thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn on thee too.”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Sc. 3, 125-126)
And although he spared Shylocks life and left him half of his fortune, his terms were very cruel:
“He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possess’d
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Sc. 1, 385-388).
Bassanio didn’t have to make Shylock a Christian; he could have just let him go. This cruel term overshadows all the good things that he’s done for others so that’s why I think Bassanio is a villain. Shylock is also a big part of the play. He has the potential to be a hero because he’s a hard-working honest man, true to Judaism and endures prejudice in his everyday life:
“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Sc. 3, 107-108).
His daughter, Jessica, runs away from him to be with her Christian lover, Lorenzo. She also converts to Christianity and steals all his riches. At this point, the reader feels sorry for Shylock but when he finds himself in the position of power, he turns out to be as cruel as everyone else:
“I’ll have no speaking, I will have my bond”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Sc. 3, 17).
His attitude doesn’t change when he goes to court and by this stage, the reader has no sympathy for him so Shylock is definitely not a heroic or likable character. Portia is one of the only three main female characters in the play. She is loyal to her late father, intelligent, witty, and mischievous. Will she be a hero or a villain? Portia seems a victim at first; how she’s forced into a marriage and doesn’t have a choice.
However when Bassanio, the man she’s loved from the first sight, picks the right casket she seems content and she tells him that he is her “king” – (Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Sc. 2, 165). When Bassanio’s dear friend, Antonio, is in trouble and needs three thousand ducats, Portia shows her kindness and love for Bassanio by offering to pay even more:
“Pay his six thousand, and deface the bond.
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio’s fault.”
(Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Sc. 2, 297-300)
Her greatest act is saving the life of Antonio. It is easy for a rich person to pay a bond but Portia makes a greater sacrifice by disguising herself as a male doctor of law and facing the courtroom. When she cannot persuade Shylock to change his mind, she says that he is quite entitled under the law to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
However, she outwits him by failing to mention that he cannot legally draw blood and therefore can in fact not take the flesh he so desires. I think this shows that Portia is very heroic and witty. In my opinion, I think that the true hero in the Merchant of Venice is Portia. I think this because she is kind, generous, helps others, and saved someone’s life. This makes her stand out as a heroic character above all the others.
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