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The Merchant of Venice is a play that, like many of Shakespeare's
plays show characters at the edges of society. In The Merchant of
Venice we see Shylock and Portia showing this by either being the
minority or the least respected or in Shylock's case both. What adds
to their role at the edge of society is the way they subvert their
roles because this focuses, in the case of Portia, the audience on her
and, in shylocks case, the other characters on him.
In The Merchant of Venice we see Shylock, whose character can be seen
in many different ways, this is due to the audience of the time. Up
until the late 1700s he was played as a comic character but the 1700s
onwards saw him played as more of a villainous character. In 1814
Shylock's role was depicted as a character to be pitied, and in 1879
he was first portrayed as a tragic character; this giving The Merchant
of Venice its title of "tragicomedy". Since then he has been depicted
in many different ways and has reaped sympathy from the audience ever
since the unjustness towards Jews in the Second World War.
The Merchant of Venice was almost certainly performed between 1596 and
1598 and was performed in front of an Elizabethan audience who were
not particularly well educated or literate but they understood the
complexities of the issues being raised in the play and the "rules" of
the stage (Portia dressing as a man). The audience of this time would
have been less sympathetic towards Shylock than a modern day audience.
The Elizabethan audience believed that females did not have any
authority and once married they would belong to the husband; "one half
of me is yours, the other half yours" is what Portia says to Bassanio
so this is widely known and accepted in the day and this provokes
Portia to dress up as a man, and subvert her "accepted role". This
"subversion" on Portia's terms coincides with Shylock's "subversion",
this is nevertheless the reason.
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though a Jew, would have had every right, if not more than Portia, to
be in court at that time. This ironic confrontation adds to the comedy
of the play due to the accepted fact that no-one would reveal Portia's
identity, especially not Shylock and for Shylock to be defeated in a
court by none other than a woman is in the least humiliating, but the
fact that he never finds out is even worse.
This subversion of Portia's role is, in my opinion, extremely
successful as, not only does she fool a courtroom into believing she
is a man, but she wins the case (and a lands a blow for the women of
society) and she forces her husband to give her their wedding ring
that Bassanio says that he will be dead before the ring leaves his
"But when this ring parts from this finger, then parts life from
hence: O then be bold to say Bassanio's dead!"
This not only shows that Bassanio was unwilling to depart from the
ring but that Portia has a humorous side and uses this as a device to
'break' the news that she and Nerissa dressed up as the opposite sex.
The reason that Portia is so successful, is due to the fact that
no-one is allowed to realise that she is a woman dressed up as a man
the reason being stage convention. This means that the only way she
can fail is if she doesn't save Antonio's life and win the court case.
Even though the chance of this looked slim she still managed to, not
only save the life of Antonio but also use the law against Shylock to
show that he isn't - by law - allowed to attempt to take the life of a
"If it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts,
he seek the life of any citizen, the party 'gainst the which he doth
contrive shall seize one half his goods, the other half comes to privy
coffer of the state,"
This feat, to strip a rich money lender of all his money is a great
feat by itself but to also turn the tables around so that the person
who has the chance of killing another - lawfully has the chance of
being killed lawfully:
"And the offenders life in the mercy of the Duke only, 'gainst all
Although these losses are at stake the Christians show mercy and
Antonio says that Shylock only has to give half of his money to his
daughter's husband when Shylock dies, but the duke also shows mercy by
sparing Shylock's life:
"I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it"
This shows the difference between Shylock and the Christians in this
age of society, or how Shakespeare wants it to be shown.
The two characters of Shylock and Portia subvert there accepted roles
in the play totally differently to each other; Shylock steps out of
his protective bubble as a Jew in the background into the world of a
Christian trying to use the Christian law to get his pound of flesh".
Shylock is seen referring to himself as the same as a Christian before
Act 4 Scene 1 in Act 3 Scene 1 when, talking to Salanio and Salarino,
"Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the
same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same
winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die and
if you wrong us, do we not revenge............If a Jew wrong a
Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew,
what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The
villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will
better the instruction."
This rather lengthy speech by shylock is merely explaining that
shylock believes that he "if a Christian wrong him" he should "by
Christian example" be able to execute revenge. This is put across as a
bitter speech and he knows that revenge is wrong when he refers to the
revenge as "villainy" so he sees himself as if he has already been
persecuted, which I'm sure he has because in Act 1 scene 3 Shylock
says to Antonio "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit
upon my Jewish gaberdine" and Antonio replies by saying "I am as like
to call thee so again". By using the word "again" Antonio is admitting
to doing it previously so the speech about "justice" is well backed up
by previous "occurrences". This, to a modern audience, is a reasonable
reason to get revenge.
In order for Shylock to get revenge he must either do something
illegal or something legal; and Shylock, not wanting to be persecuted
any more, does it legally; through the courts. Shylock, by seeing his
chance to get revenge, emerges from the reserved bubble of
self-containment as a man with a mission; revenge. This emersion is
also his subversion as he pretends to be a law-abiding citizen who
wants something that is, as he thinks, rightfully his. This is backed
up by the contract that Antonio signed as the deal was made "Yes
Shylock I will seal unto this bond". This deal was accepted by Antonio
because he thought he had no chance of his ships failing him "I do
expect return of thrice three times the value of this bond". Shylocks
inadvertent "sticking to the law" is eventually his downfall as the
crafty Portia (disguised as Balthasar) reminds him that blood wasn't
mentioned in the previously mentioned contract:
"This doth bond give here no jot of blood. The words expressly are 'a
pound of flesh'. "
This shows Shylock's weaknesses as a person of law; he was in such a
rush to get Antonio to sign the contract that he forgot to add blood.
Maybe Antonio knew this that is why he accepted the offer so
graciously and was just about to mention it.
All of the previous evidence makes me come to the conclusion that
Shylock was unsuccessful in his attempt to subvert his role and I
think this was because he, instead of stepping back away from the
limelight Shylock stood directly under it and made it brighter if
Shylock had not been so vicious and self-centred then he may not have
caused Portia to dig so deeply into her "bag of tricks" and find a
flaw in shylocks "flawless" plan. Even if Shylock had accepted that he
was duly owed a repayment and accepted the offer of "for thy three
thousand ducats here is six" offered to him at no later stage than the
court scene, but still Shylock brushes away the offer by saying "If
every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a
ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond" this is just a way
of saying "if you offered me thirty six thousand ducats, I would not
take them; I would have the pound of flesh". This is an extremely
malicious thing to say and maybe with slight just cause, but I
personally wouldn't refuse twelve times the agreed bond price.
All of these things that prove that Shylock is a malicious man and in
the end prove that he had intent to kill Antonio and in the end
bringing himself down, not only mentally but physically as in the end
of act IV scene i Shylock is on his knees, and to an Elizabethan
audience; where he should be.