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Exploring the various forms of love displayed in Shakespeares Merchant of Venice

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  • Category: Love

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In this essay I will attempt to explore the many different forms of love that exist in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant Of Venice’. Within this play there are many complex relationships between the characters, and they all, in my opinion, are based and formed on love.

I believe the finest example of love within the play is the love between Bassanio and Portia. Both parties explicitly love each other spiritually and physically. Bassanio’s first reference to Portia uses highly poetic language, indicating that he thinks very highly of her.

‘ In Belmont is a lady richly left,

And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,

Of wondrous virtues.’

This poetic language is in contrast to the language used between Solerio, Salanio and Gratiano previously in the scene.

E.g.when confronting Antonio about his sadness Gratiano says;

‘If they should speak, would almost damn those ears

Which, hearing them, would call their brothers fools.”

The language Gratiano uses is humorous and typically ‘ladish’ of the language used in Venice. In contrast the language used in Belmont is poetic and loving. This change in language is used by Shakespeare to help the audience to distinguish between the two settings of the play. It also shows the audience how highly Bassanio thinks of Portia. However there is some doubt at this stage in the play as to Bassanios motives. These are caused by the very first line he says when describing Portia;

‘In Belmont is a lady richly left’.

This makes the audience doubt that Bassanio’s love for Portia is genuine, but perhaps it is because she is rich that he is fond of her.

It is in Bassanios first reference to Portia that the theme of the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonoughts is introduced;

‘ And her sunny locks

Hang on her temples like a golden fleece’.

This theme runs throughout the play, and it shows that Bassanio does value Portia very highly, and that he is willing to do anything for her.

Portia’s first reference to Bassaonio, when she is talking to Nerissa (her lady in waiting), is a comparison to her other suitors. It is Act 1 scene 2, when she is talking about the many suitors who have attempted to woo her. Portia shows in this scene that she is intelligent and able to make her own decisions. She shows this by ridiculing all but one of her suitors.

For example, when referring to the County Palatine (a count who reigned over territory which in other countries would be ruled by a king) she says;

‘ He does nothing but frown……..

He hears merry tales and smiles not,

….. I would rather be married to a death’s head with a bone in his mouth,’.

A ‘death’s head’ is a skull, and this is relevant to the bond of the three caskets that Portia’s suitors must choose from, as the prince of Morocco finds when he opens the golden casket, revealing a skull. Although Portia is perfectly able to make her own decisions, this bond prevents her from doing so. The audience is aware of this, thus making the play more gripping when Bassanio has to choose a casket.

As Portia goes through the many suitors, from many different countries, and ridicules them individually, the audience has to decide what point Shakespeare is making. It could be that Shakespeare is using this piece in the play to show his own personal contempt for other races. However, I believe it is more likely that Shakespeare is attacking the way that people treated and thought about other races in Elizabethan times (something that unfortunately still happens today), this is because Portia also ridicules a suitor from England;

‘You know I say nothing to him for he understands

Not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French,

Nor Italian……………

He is a proper man’s picture, but, alas! Who can

Converse with a dumb-show?’

The phrase ‘dumb-show’ meant a mime act in Elizabethan times. Here, in my opinion, Shakespeare is attacking the English for their lack of continental knowledge, and their racism. It is remarkable that this point is still so relevant to the British people of today, due to the fact that we are, in comparison with other European countries, behind when it comes to learning foreign languages, and there are constantly stories in the media about racially motivated attacks.

This speech by Portia also shows her intelligence, as she is not interested in looks alone. This also emphasizes her feelings for Bassanio, as her ridicule of the other suitors contrasts with the fact that the only suitor Portia does not ridicule or dismiss is Bassanio. She does not say much, in fact very little in comparison with Bassanios speech about her;

‘I remember him well, and I remember him worthy

Of thy praise.’

Although this is only a small speech, it is important because it tells the audience that Portia is fond of Bassanio. This is because she was quick to pick out the faults of her other suitors, but she finds no faults in Bassanio.

The relation ship between Portia and Bassanio becomes one of mutual respect, and affectionate love. Their relation ship also becomes physical, demonstrated when Portia says;

‘Sweet doctor, you shall be my bed fellow.’

There are other relationships within the play that seem to mirror Portia and Bassanio’s relationship. For example, the relationship between Gratiano and Nerissa. The relationship between these two is revealed quite suddenly in act3 scene2. Gratiano tells Bassanio and Portia the news that they are to be married, just after Bassanio and Portia agree to be married.

This could mean that the this relationship has been happening for sometime, secretly, and that they were waiting for the right time to tell anyone. It is after Bassanio has given them his blessing that Gratiano reveals what has happened;

‘You saw the mistress, I beheld the maid; ……

Your fortune stood upon the caskets there,

And so did mine too.’

This shows us how close Bassanio and Gratiano are, because Gratiano is willing to forsake his happiness if Bassanio could not be married to Portia. It also shows how alike they are, as Gratiano seems to have mirrored Bassanio almost exactly in his actions;

‘You saw the mistress, I beheld the maid,

You loved I loved….’

The audience can now see, perhaps why it was that Grattiano was so desperate to join Bassanio in Belmont in Act 2 scene 2. This continues another theme in the play; Appearance verses reality. This theme runs throughout the play, most noticeably within the bond of the three caskets. The materials and the inscriptions on the caskets are meant to deceive the ‘unfit’ suitors. The appearance of the gold casket seems to be the most adequate choice, however the reality is that the lead casket, the most unsightly metal is the correct choice.

The theme of deception plays an important part in the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo. Jessica deceives her father, Shylock, when he leaves her in charge of the house while he goes to feast with Bassanio. Lancelot the servant informs Jessica that Lorenzo will meet her after Shylock has left, behind Shylock’s back. But when Shylock asks her what Lancelot said, she replies;

‘His words were, ‘farewell, mistress’; nothing else.’

Her willingness to lie and deceive her father shows how much she hates him, and also how glad she is to elope with Lorenzo. There is yet more deceit involved when Jessica dresses as a boy so that she can leave with Lorenzo without being noticed. This also incorporates the theme of appearance verses reality. Again this shows how much she wants to escape from her father, and how devoted she is to Lorenzo.

The love between Jessica and Lorenzo involves intrigue and adventure. The audience are quite surprised when the two elope together as it happens in a relatively short period of time, their relationship is exciting and captivates the audience, as their is uncertainty as to if they will get away with stealing Shylock’s wealth, and whether they will be happy together. Fortunately for them, Jessica and Lorenzo’s relationship results in them both finding true happiness with each other. This is demonstrated in act 5 scene 1;


‘ On such a night did young Lorenzo swear he love’d her well,

Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,

And ne’er a true one.’


‘In such a night did pretty Jessica, like a shrew,

Slander her love, and he forgave it her.’

The content and language of this scene, are in stark contrast to the previous ‘trial’ scene. Again Shakespeare uses language, and also in this case the imagery of moonlight, to show the mood of the scene, and the place (Belmont).

Within ‘The Merchant of Venice’ there is not only love between a man and a woman. There is also a strong bond of love between the male characters of the play. It is difficult for us to understand today, how the bond between two men was extremely spiritual in Elizabethan times, without thinking it was a homosexual relationship. It was commonplace in that time for men to have a very close bond with each other. I think the finest example of this form of love is Antonio’s love for Bassanio. The bond between these two characters is extremely strong. Antonio is so devoted to Bassanio that he is willing to risk his life for him by entering the ‘pound of flesh’ bond with Shylock.

Although we are certain of Antonio’s devotion to Bassanio early on in the play, we are left in doubt until later in the play that the devotion is mutual. E.g. When Antonio is agreeing to the bond with Shylock, risking his life so that Bassanio can see Portia, Bassanio does not stop Antonio. In my opinion if Bassanio really loved Antonio, he wouldn’t allow him to do such a thing. I think that here Bassanio is being very selfish, as he is just focusing on getting the 3000 ducats so that he can woo Portia. He doesn’t seem to think about the consequences of what could happen if Antonio’s ships fail. The theme of ‘appearance verses reality’ is present at this point also, as Bassanio says;

‘You shall not seal to such a bond for me:

I’ll rather dwell in my necessity.’

However Bassanio still allows the bond to proceed. Although Bassanio seems selfish and undevoted to Antonio at this early stage in the play, the audience sees that he truly loves Antonio in act 4 scene1 (the trial scene) when he says;

‘Antonio, I am married to a wife

Which is as dear to me as life itself;

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,

Are not with me esteemed above thy life:

I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all,

Here to this devil, to deliver you.’

This speech shows how Bassanio is willing to give his own life, and sacrifice everything, even Portia, so that Antonio can live.

There are also other bonds between the other male characters in the play, I have already talked about Gratiano and Bassanio, and how similar they are. Bassanio shows his love for Gratiano by allowing him, to join him on his journey to Belmont. Gratiano’s manners and language could have been perceived as vulgar by Portia, Bassanio knew this, for example in Act 1 scene 1 Bassanio says (referring to Gratiano)

‘He speaks an infinite deal of nothing,’

However due to his love for Gratiano, Bassanio allowed him to come. This love is reciprocated, as Grattiano thoughtfully does not divulge the news that he is getting married until Bassanios fate with Portia is certain.

Solerio and Solanio seem to also be very close, intact within the play they only appear in scenes together, they appear to be a team that only works together. This is demonstrated in act3 scene1 when the two of them ridicule Shylock together about Jessica leaving home;


‘I, for my part, knew the tailor that

Made the wings she flew withal.’


‘And Shylock, for his own part, knew the bird was

Fledge; and then it is the compexion of them all to

Leave the dam.’

In my opinion none of these relationships are as strong as the bond between Bassanio and Antonio. As this bond is one of absolute devotion.

There is one final form of love in the play left to explore; Paternal love. The love between a father and child.

I think that Shylock seems to love his daughter, Jessica much more than she loves him. Jessica is very unhappy and loathes her father, and his religion. This maybe because he is an authodox Jew and she is not and she disagrees with the way he acts. I have already discussed how in act 2, scene 5, how she elopes with Lorenzo, showing her contempt for her father by stealing his jewels and wealth. In act 3 scene 1, we realize that Shylock suffers great pain from the loss of his daughter. When Salerio and Solanio start making fun of Shylock it is obvious that he is in a way being victimized. It is here again, we notice the theme of appearance verses reality, in appearance Shylock is the villain of the play, but in reality perhaps he is the victim.

There was obviously not a bond between Shylock and Jessica and they grew apart even more as the play continued. Another bond between father and child is that of Old Gobbo and his son Lancelot. In Act 2, Scene 3, we see the main comedy scene of the play. Launceot’s father Gobbo is blind and comes in search of his son. However, Lancelot uses this blindness to his advantage and plays a cruel trick on his father. This trick does not harm anyone but adds relief and humor to the play. They don’t seem to dislike each other but Lancelot uses his father’s disability to amuse himself, which makes us feel sorry for Gobbo. However, this is not a serious scene and we see Lancelot as one of the fun and humorous characters of the play. Lancelot and Gobbo do seem to have a bond with each other and this is obvious when Gobbo finds out about his son tricking him.

The bond between Portia and her father is also quite strong. Her father seemed to only want the best for her, even though this meant that she could not choose her own husband. However, fortunately for her the suitor she wishes to wed (Bassanio) chooses the correct casket. This shows that perhaps Portia and her father where very similar in the way they thought, and judged people.

Throughout ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ there are many relationships that grow and develop around the theme of love. In the final scene of the play, all three couples are together (Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, Grattiano and Nerrisa) standing in the moonlight in Belmont, creating an extremely romantic mood. The only character present who does not have a partner is Antonio. I think this is ironic because Antonio, in my opinion, held the strongest love (for Bassanio) throughout the play. It may seem unfair that he is alone, but I don’t think he is without love. After all it was because of Bassanios love for him that Portia came to save his life.

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