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Parent-child relationships in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice”

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In ‘The Merchant of Venice’, there are three parent-child relationships; Shylock and Jessica, Portia and her deceased father, and Launcelot and Old Gobbo. There is an obvious contrast between these relationships. Although Portia’s father is deceased, they had a good relationship while he was alive. However, the relationship between Shylock and Jessica is repressive and conflictual and ends tragically. After Shakespeare’s song, Hamnet, died tragically in 1596, he began a theatrical study of parent-child relationships for the rest of his career. Although other Shakespeare plays are also based on this theme, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, written around a year after his son died, looks into the relationships, which varied insights, so we can see the different point of views.

Although Portia’s relationship with her father is good, there is some conflict just like any paternal relationship. When her father passed away, he left a will stating that suitors to Portia would have to choose one of three caskets. If their choice were correct, then they would be able to marry Portia. However, Portia does not think the lottery is a good idea and could mean that she will have to marry somebody that she does not want to. She shows this by saying, “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.” In those days, it was common for parents to choose their daughters’ partner, especially those from rich, educated families. Seeing as Portia was rich, clever and beautiful, she would have many suitors, and most of them may not have been suitable for her. The idea of the lottery shows that her father had her best intentions at heart, showing a good relationship between the two.

Portia also accepts her father’s will, showing that he is a still a strong influence in her life. Whilst the suitors are deciding on whether to choose the gold, silver or lead casket, Portia begins to doubt her father’s wishes again. She considers rebelling against her father’s will and says, “And the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall make shift to go without him.” Nerissa is there to remind her of her duty and says, “If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father’s will if you should refuse to accept him.” When Bassanio is deciding which casket he should choose, Portia is tempted to give him a few hints about which casket to choose but then realizes she not disrespect her father by disobeying him, even if it means she will lose the only suitor that she can stand. She tells Bassanio, “If you do love me, you will find me out”, showing that she believes in her father’s wisdom and he made this will for a reason. This section of the play shows that Portia is strong-minded and respects her father, which makes her the complete opposite to Jessica.

The most obvious parent-child relationship in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is that of Shylock and Jessica. Throughout Act 1 Scene 3, Shylock is shown to be a cunning, manipulative money-grasping person. This was the typical Elizabethan stereotype of Jews at the time. In the same scene, we learn of Shylock’s hatred for Antonio, which could also be a reason for why he is so despised in the community as Antonio lends out money to people with no interest, therefore making him quite popular. A quotation to show Shylock’s hatred for Antonia is, “I hate him for his Christian” showing that he is anti-Christian and religion is very important to him.

In Act 2 Scene 2, Launcelot adds to the disliking of Shylock by saying, “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation” meaning that more than one person has the same opinion of Shylock; that they do not like him. We can then definitely tell that Shylock is not popular at all when his own daughter says “Our house is hell”, showing she is not happy at home. Jessica then goes on to say, “Alack, what a 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.” This shows that Jessica is appalled by the way Shylock acts to her and to others a well. She rejects her father’s way of life and his religion, but not his wealth, which she eventually steals when she runs away. In Act 2 Scene 3, Launcelot promises to pass a letter from Jessica to Lorenzo, her Christian lover. This shows that Jessica has denied her family and her religion. Act 2 Scene 5 is the first scene in which we see Shylock and Jessica together, although we have already learnt a lot about their negative relationship.

Shylock is abrasive and stern towards Jessica. In return, she is deceitful back to him. However in this scene, Shylock is instructing Jessica to shut up the house and stay indoors. This shows his fatherly concern towards her as they were living in an extremely anti-Semitic society. Jews had been banned from England for over three and a half centuries, as they were hated so much. They were excluded from guilds, meaning they could not practice a certain trade and that less and less occupations were available to them. A reason why this play was set in Venice was because if it were set in Britain, it would have much too politically sensitive.

Jessica is frustrated, just like any normal teenager, because of her father’s behaviour. This scene makes us have sympathy towards Jessica and makes us realize that it is not just anti-Semitism that makes Shylock so unpleasant. The relationship between Shylock and Jessica ends tragically. Jessica runs away with Lorenzo and steals money and sentimental jewellery. Shylock feels betrayed, not just because his daughter ran away and stole his possessions, but because she ran away with a Christian. Shylock had made his feelings towards Christians clear in the scene with Antonio.

In Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock delivers one of the most famous monologues that Shakespeare has written. He says, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Throughout the monologue, he explains that Jews are exactly the same as Christians and any other type of person, except that they have different beliefs. One reason why Shylock and Jessica’s relationship failed is because Shylock is his own worst enemy. He was so consumed by greed and hate that his feelings towards others spilled out towards his daughter. Later on, he discovers that Jessica has run away. It becomes clear that he valued his wealth almost more than he valued his own daughter. He shows this by saying, “O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!” It then becomes apparent which one he does value more, when he says, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” This shows he valued his wealth more than Jessica.

The last paternal relationship in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is the one between Launcelot and Old Gobbo. Launcelot was Shylock’s servant, but he was so unhappy working there because of his master’s behaviour. In those times, a servant was not supposed to leave his master as it was considered betrayal. This also shows the hatred towards Shylock, even from somebody of a lower status than him. Deep down, Launcelot and Old Gobbo have a good relationship although at first they do not realize it. Launcelot shows a lack of respect for his father, “Well, my conscience . . . says very wisely to me, ‘My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man’s son’–or rather an honest woman’s son, for indeed my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste.” In addition to this, he has little faith is his father’s wisdom as Old Gobbo literally does not know his son.

He does not recognize his son when he meets him on the street, but he is nearly blind. However, he does not recognize Launcelot’s voice or personality. The only thing that Gobbo is sure of is Launcelot’s status – he knows that he is not “Master Launcelot” but a servant. Launcelot is cruel to his father and teases him about by talking about himself in the third person as “Master Launcelot”. He then tells his father, “Master Launcelot . . . is indeed deceased, or as you would say in plain terms, gone to heaven.” However, Old Gobbo seems very fond of his son, even if he did not recognize him. When he thinks that Launcelot is dead, he says, “That boy was the very staff my age, my very prop.” When Launcelot makes the request to acquire a new position so that he didn’t have to work for Shylock anymore, his father agrees to help him.

The three parent-child relationships in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are quite similar in some ways but also vary greatly. Both Portia and Jessica are controlled by their fathers, even though Portia’s father is deceased. He is just as controlling as Shylock as he insists on choosing his daughter’s partner, which was the common thing to do back then. However, Portia respects her father wishes whereas Jessica just betrays her father. Old Gobbo is alike to Shylock as well. Although he is affectionate towards his son, he does not truly understand him, the same way Shylock does not truly understand Jessica. Shylock is the least successful parent in the play as he seems to add both Portia’s father and Old Gobbo’s worst features together to become controlling and domineering over Jessica and does not show her love and affection, although he most likely feels it for her. One of the many messages that this play tells us is that to be a good parent, you do not just need to love your child but you must understand and know them well too.

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