Symbolic Exchange in The Merchant of Venice
Rings are significant to the narrative of The Merchant of Venice for several reasons. Firstly, as symbols of love, wealth and power. Secondly, as a means through which Portia gives and then regains control of herself, her weath and power and finally, the theft and sale of Leah's turquoise ring acts as a source of sympathy towards Shylock and allows him to parallel the Christian husbands, Bassanio and Graziano.
A ring is, in and of itself, a frivolous object; it serves no practical purpose and its only functions are symbolic and aesthetic. They are thus also a symbol of the wealth and power of the owner; a demonstration that they have so much money they can afford to fritter it away on useless trinkets. Further, a signet ring bestowed power on the wearer, as they were used to authenticate and seal official documents, much like a signature. Thus, the ring bestowed the ability to issue orders in the name its owner and thus symbolised that power.
Rings also often indicate a promise, vow or bond (for example, a purity ring standing for the vow of abstinence and chasteness). Bonds and promises are a centre point in The Merchant of Venice, and so too the breaking of them. This will be explored in more detail later in the essay.
Traditionally, and to this day, rings also indicate love and affection. The most common and widespread form of this is, of course, the wedding or engagement ring. This is not a tradition divorced from the symbolism of wealth or power, however, especially in the context of the text — in Shakespeare's time, wedding rings were a tradition mostly confined to the upper merchant and noble classes, since the poor simply could not afford them.
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...s Portia to end up in a position she otherwise would not have been able to achieve and maintain her own wealth and power despite her marriage to Bassanio. Rings and bonds are the hinges on which the play turns, and they are both interlinked and integral to the play.
Blanchard, Jane. "Contesting Constancy in The Merchant of Venice", Renascence 61, vol 4 (2009), pp 209-220
Kunz, George Frederick. Rings for the Finger. North Chemsford: Courier Dover Publications, 2012.
Newman, Karen. "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice", Shakespeare Quarterly 38, no 1 (1987), pp 19-33.
Scott, William O. "Conditional Bonds, Forfeitures, and Vows in The Merchant of Venice", English Literary Renaissance 34, vol 3, 2004, pp 286-305
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010.
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