Merchant Of Venice - Plot Structure


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Show how the plot of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is apparently fanciful but in reality exactingly structured.

“The Merchant of Venice is a fairy tale. There is no more reality in Shylock’s bond and the Lord of Belmont’s will than in Jack and the Beanstalk.”
H. Granville-Barker, in Prefaces to Shakespeare.

This is one way of looking at the play, reading it or enjoying the performance. But it can be a contradiction to our actual feelings about this complex play. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ might appear to be a romantic tale without much logic but that would be a superficial interpretation. Portia’s father may have raised our concerns in taking away her freedom to choose her beloved; Shylock’s bond and those conditions may violate most legal codes; but the way the play moves takes one beyond these doubts and objections.

In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare creates an interesting contrast between the mercantile and tumultuous city of Venice and the peaceful and gracious world of Belmont. The striking difference between these two settings helps to capture and maintain our attention. There are differences in the value of systems of the people belonging to the two different cities. The contrast between Venice and Belmont is that one place is where money is made and the other where it is spent. One is characterised by light and sunshine and the other by moonlight and music. Wealth is described in almost sensuous terms like when Salerio says

“…touching but my gentle vessel’s side…Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks.”

And in an ironic way later love is talked about in commercial terms. Another contrast is presented when the scenes shift from Venice to Belmont. When we hear of Shylock’s hatred and his terms of the bond, our anxiety builds. But then the play moves on to Belmont and the mood shifts from a sort of harshness and tension to a world of romance and graciousness. The most striking contrast is between the court room scene in Act IV and the opening scene of Act V which takes place on a starlit, romantic night in Belmont. Venice could also be a sort of “a disguise” for London. Venice is “poised between Christians” on one hand whose acquisitive practices do not match up with their protestations against usury and Jews on the other whose dealings rest on the “double pillars of expediency and Levitical Law” Shylock’s attitude to money is contrasted with that of the Christians.

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He sees gold as that can be put to work to produce more gold, while they see it as an opportunity to increase the pleasures of friendship and society.

Shakespeare did not leave the fables as he found them. His most immediate source was ‘The Jew of Malta’ and through this he seems to explore the relationship between an alien and a settled society. Barabas and Abigail are compliments to Shylock and Jessica. He borrowed heavily from sources and the Bond and Casket theme have a long lineage. Shylock’s “merry-bond” has sources both in fantasy and legal fact. In Easter and Western tales we find a contract to give up a portion of the debtor’s living flesh. Also in the Twelve Tables, a codification of Roman Civil Law of the 5th century BC, there is a mention that a defaulting debtor’s body could be divided among his creditors. The Flesh Bond theme starts with the sardonic ‘kindness’ of Shylock’s “merry bond” and in Bassanio’s protests. And then in the trial scene Shakespeare deals with the intricacies of Law.

There are many legal implications to this play and most people see it in cultural and textual isolation and fail to link it to the prominent social and economic issues. But as Stephen Cohen points out “the trial’s battle lines are drawn not between Capitalism (that is Venice) and feudalism (Belmont), but between the socially and politically independent rising class (represented by Shylock, all the Jews) and the ruling class and its ideological allies (the Christian aristocrats and Antonio).” As he puts it the trial is not a question of “law per se”, but of political power. But this scene can also be seen as a Christian parable that attempts to reconcile two conflicting principles: justice and mercy. And the climax is about the difference between a judgement that would be made in terms of the letter of the law and one that would be made in terms of the spirit of the law.

The Casket theme is also about judgement. But is it by appearance or by reasoning? It is suggested that the spontaneous feeling of love that will lead the way.

Chance also plays an important part in the play. Shylock had no way of knowing that Antonio would suffer a complete loss and default his bond and even Antonio would never have thought that he would not get even one of his ships back and not be able to pay the money. Also the way that Portia disguises herself as the doctor is also very improbable but one accepts it. The Ring story is also fanciful and today we might find it an unnecessary addition but it was needed to tie up the loose ends of the play and for the story to have a happy ending in Belmont.

Irving Wardel in The Times wrote, “it is the case with this play that while its form is that of a fairy tale its characters are open to realistic analysis.” Shylock is one of the main characters of the play but this also depends on the way that his character is played. He has mostly been portrayed as a comic character but when he is the tragic protagonist he ‘usurps the center of the stage.’ Shylock “represents the killjoy against whom the pleasure-loving characters unite.” He represents a “a-social miserliness” and thus his villainy is somewhat mitigated and brought within the scope of humanist debate. Shylock exists as a visible complication to the smooth running of Bassanio’s friendship with Antonio and his courtship of Portia. One can almost say that is the character that makes the plot possible.

Antonio is the melancholic hero with his dedication to his friend and soul mate Bassanio is one of the fiercest Jew-baiter of the play. He idealizes the relationship of friendship and mutual service but is intolerant of Jews. Antonio imbibes Nemesis through his overconfidence and puts himself at the mercy of Shylock. But there are critics who when talking about the Christian Allegory of the play feel that he is a Christ figure who loves mankind enough to die and that Portia is like the Virgin Mary and Shylock is the Devil.

Portia is the “Golden Fleece” that suitors from all over come to woo. She is spirited-intelligent and ready to take the initiative and this she does in from Act IV. But before that she is prevented by the casket story. But she is prejudiced and Racism is displayed in her treatment of the Prince of Morocco. Shakespeare might have been trying to show the equality of men and women by giving Portia strength and intelligence but she is also a victim of discrimination-her marriage is not decided by her own preference but indirectly by her father. Shakespeare limits her wit by the test of the caskets and almost shows her as a creature of passions and fancies that are over come only after marriage.

Bassanio is the noble Elizabethan young Lord who is exuberant and more so in money matters. He is something of a two faced character, but is not very hypocritical or life-like.

He seems to be practical and would not have been looked down upon during the 16th C. but one wonders whether he is a Fortune Hunter or a Genuine Lover. He chooses the right casket but before that we don’t get any suggestion that he would do anything but choose “by the view.” And we know that he is interested in ‘golden’ side of Portia because the first thing he says about her is that she is a lady “richly left” and only after that he explains that she is “fair” and “of wondrous virtues”.

To choose the right casket he must have the appropriate character, which he does not have and maybe he got a clue from the song and the rhyme with “lead”. Patrick Swinden has said that “Bassanio’s conduct is consistent with the underlying theme of the play, which is an assessment of the different ways in which feeling and judgement affect the actions of various individuals.” The play has its flights of fantasy but even in the most serious scenes when there are fairy tale glimpses, one cannot take anything away from the characters.

So Shylock is real, while me might consider his story to be fabulous; Portia and Bassanio also become human thought as Granville-Barker said, “they never quite emerge from the enchanted thicket of fancy into the common light of day.”

Shakespeare is a shrewd Dramatic Engineer and in the words of Joan Holmer he “fashions an artistic unity out of the richly varied and often contradictory elements that constitute The Merchant of Venice.” The play is more than the sum of its parts. As the play goes on the audience and the reader are convinced of the essential sanity of the casket-test for Portia’s suitors; we fear Shylock’s bond and anticipate tragedy despite the “merry” terms. One accepts the seriousness of the trial scene and we respond gravely to the nature of usury and to the contrasts of charity and compassion. The dignity and absurdity in Shylock’s character paints a picture of the Jew through which today we see the problems of ‘race’. These are no fairy-tale matters though the fairy-tale tone is frequently there.


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