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Ryan Streem

Grade: 11

University High School

Instructor(s): Scott Boehnen, Jim Garrett

Relationships in The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare's Use of Materialism and It's Influence on a Character's Sacrifice of Love for Money in a Justifiable Manner

Critical Essay

Relationships in The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare's Use of Materialism and It's Influence on a Character's Sacrifice of Love for Money in a Justifiable Manner

In The Merchant of Venice, readers may notice significant relationships between Antonio and Bassanio, and Shylock and Jessica. In both relationships, one member deserts the love of their counterpart, and escapes this love in order to gain benefits in society. As Jessica elopes to become a Christian and steals her father's money, Bassanio hopes to exploit his friend Antonio to marry Portia. This would result in him receiving an economic advantage through her inheritance. Within these circumstances, there are also parallels between Antonio and Shylock, as both of their stories have many similarities. By observing their actions as well as the choices made by Bassanio and Jessica, readers can conclude that the characters' abandonments and sacrifices of love indicate the theme of upward mobility, as both Bassanio and Jessica want to climb to the top of the social system. Throughout the play Shakespeare especially portrays the idea of money being more important than love, or love being made up of transactional relationships, through the departure of Bassanio and Jessica from Antonio and Shylock. In some ways, both Bassanio and Jessica mirror each other in their actions, yet their feelings and the reasons for their actions are set apart. Each character attempts to advance in society and fit social norms by giving up love. Despite the controversies, differing opinions, and assumptions of the characters in this play, Bassanio and Jessica demonstrate that money is a priority that comes before love.

Bassanio's escape from Antonio to pursue a life of luxury suggests that in some ways wealth is more important than their friendship. The friendship between Antonio and Bassanio in the beginning of the play is characterized by the borrowing of money. As Antonio is seen as doing a favor by using his credit and risking his life, Bassanio uses this favor to chase after an affluent woman to marry. Most significantly, Bassanio's correct choosing of the chest finalizes his and Portia's engagement. Portia says that Bassanio is now owns all of her estate, and Portia gives Bassanio a ring to represent their truthful marriage (3.2.170-175). As it is assumed that Antonio has homosexual feelings for Bassanio, this ring symbolizes that there is now a barrier between their intimacy. By instigating the creation of this barrier, there is now a blockage that prevents Bassanio's friendly or loving relationship with Antonio from the path of riches Bassanio has chosen. Even when Bassanio explains his need for money to Antonio, he ostensibly mentions love, which depicts that he is actually after the wealth. Bassanio says, "In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues" (1.1.168-170). Bassanio's words in this instance, and repeated several times later, superficially convey that he does care about Portia's beauty, personality, and character. Although this is what he has said in his words, Bassanio's decision to leave Antonio and use Antonio's finances to wed Portia reveals that money truly is at the center of Bassanio's world, and he may even give up friendship to gain it.

As Bassanio escapes the homosexual love of Antonio to begin a heterosexual relationship with prosperous advantages, Jessica also attempts to climb up the social ladder by converting to Christianity. She now becomes a typical member in society instead of a Jew who faces discrimination. Based on Shylock's values and his reputation in Venetian society, Jessica may have reason to abandon her father. She claims that "…our house is hell" (2.3.2), and following this gives a soliloquy as she says:

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me

To be ashamed to be my father's child?

But though I am a daughter to his blood,

I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,

If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,

Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3.16-21)

Jessica feels wrong that she does not actually like her father or his character, but she cannot agree with his ways. When planning her escaper with Lorenzo, Jessica says to him, "I will make fast the doors and gild myself / With some more ducats, and be with you straight" (2.6.51-52). Jessica's decision to run away and marry Lorenzo, who is a penniless Christian, shows that she is moving on and putting her filial love for Shylock behind her. She cannot stand being scorned by Christians when it is her father causing the hate, which makes her want to convert. Jessica does not want to fit under the Jewish stereotype that Shylock carries with him. Jessica's freedom is also denied and limited by Shylock, another factor compelling her to elope. Connected to Judaism, Jessica has broken two of the Ten Commandments. She has stolen a portion of her father's wealth, and her conversion to Christianity concludes that she covets the societal advantages that Christians possess. Jessica's abandonment of her father and her Jewish identity shows disloyalty to her religion, but she does it to become a loving wife in a happy relationship. At the end of the play, it is expressed that Jessica made the right and correct decision to elope as she inherits the wealthy income of Shylock, which was given up to Antonio as the result of the court case (4.1.396-406).

While Bassanio and Jessica are the characters who escape from their counterparts, they may have vindication and rationality behind their avoidances of undesired love. For Bassanio, he may be avoiding a controlling relationship with Antonio by running off to marry Portia in Belmont. Antonio writes a letter that requests Bassanio comes and sees him at his death (3.2.328-334). His letter is manipulative, as it traps Bassanio. It tells him to come it he wants, but the debts will only be cleared if he comes, which is contradictory. This restraining love that Antonio has for Bassanio can potentially factor into Bassanio's sacrifice of this love for Portia's wealth instead. In addition to this and ironically, Antonio also finds his own importance of money that is in the way of his friendship with Bassanio. In his last word as he prepares to die, Antonio says, "For herein Fortune shows herself more kind / Than is her custom: it is still her use / To let the wretched man outlive his wealth," (4.1.279-281). This quote implies that Antonio is okay dying because his business has failed since he has lost all his money at sea. He says this as a way of telling Bassanio not to grieve his death. Despites Antonio's love for Bassanio and hatred for Shylock's greed, Antonio's words uncover that wealth in life is more important than other commodities of monetary values. This is ironic because the reason Antonio is about to die is because he put his love for Bassanio over his commerce as a merchant. Jessica's elopement can also be seen as being justifiable as a result of her father's materialistic greed. When Jessica escapes, Solanio discusses Shylock's reaction with Salarino:

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!

Fled with a Christian! O my Christian Ducats!

Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter,

A sealéd bag, two sealéd bags of ducats,

Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter,

And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious

stones—

Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!

She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.

Shylock's response does not show his care for his daughter, but an emotional outburst that expresses blame and hate for Jessica because she stole money and chased a Christian man against her own religion. This passage further explains a metaphorical castration of Shylock since he has lost his own child. Shylock should take blame for this, as he essentially enslaved and locked up Jessica from Christian outsiders. The reaction depicts the play's theme of materialism, as Shylock is angrier about his stolen finances and his daughter's interaction with a Christian man than rather being angry that his daughter is now gone. Shylock's economic greed essentially reveals that he lacks proper care for Jessica, giving reason for her desire to elope. The flow of monetary value seen in the play not only draws Bassanio and Jessica to leave the people they previously had loving relationships with, but this materialism also arises from Antonio and Shylock, which plays a significant and defensible role in the departures of Bassanio and Jessica.

Bassanio and Jessica choose to pursue lives of affluency and religious freedom, respectively, as they withdraw from their previous associations. While their decisions to do this in order to climb the social latter of Venice and fit social norms seem irrational, disloyal, and egotistical, they actually have justification. Antonio limits the loving freedom of Bassanio as Shylock denies Jessica's freedom. Antonio also seems to at times prioritize his business in front of his homosexual love for Bassanio, as Shylock's neglect for Jessica is exhibited through his value of wealth and his desire for a Jewish daughter rather than a loving one. Contradictory to this, Bassanio exploits the risk that Antonio makes for him while Jessica breaks laws of her own Jewish religion to succeed in her elopement. Finally, these intimacies conclude that not only one side is always to blame for an affair, as the materialistic desire over love observed in the play is not influenced by only one source. A perspective needs to be looked from in which other influences can be identified, possibly from the other half of a relationship. The circumstances and situations between these two sets of relationships in the play evince that a money-oriented world transforms people into sacrificing the feeling of love and affection for riches.