William Shakespeare’s vastly discussed comedy, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, alternatively called “The Jew of Venice’, highlights several themes, love, loyalty, friendship, appearance and reality and also the Christian-Jew rivalry prevalent in Elizabethan society. The “Merchant” is a reference to Antonio, a passive character suffering from nameless melancholy. Although Shylock, a usurious Jewish moneylender, is a more dominating character, I believe that “The Merchant of Venice” is a more appropriate title than “The Jew of Venice”.
Antonio is a reputed, wealthy, Venetian merchant with ships all over the world. As a moral Christian, he considers it his duty to lend money without interest. To help his dear friend Bassanio amass money to woo a rich heiress, Portia, Antonio puts his own life at stake by signing Shylock’s fatal bond of three thousand ducats, without interest, for three months and if unpaid, entitling Shylock to a pound of flesh from any part of Antonio’s body. Antonio is mostly melancholic, acquiescent and submissive. Salarino says that “a kinder gentleman treads not the earth” in context of Antonio’s love and generosity. Bassanio describes him as his “dearest friend” and “the best condition’d and unwearied spirit in doing courtesies”.
Shylock despises Antonio for lending money gratis and reducing the rate of profit in Venice. Though a compassionate and generous friend, Antonio is a religious fanatic, berating Shylock at the Rialto, the Venetian Stock Exchange, spitting on his Jewish gaberdine and beard, hurling insults and humiliating him; calling him a cut-throat dog and a misbeliever.
Antonio, however, is an honourable gentleman; standing by the terms of the bond, accepting that the Duke cannot deny the course of the law. He does not blame Bassanio for his predicament, but displays courage and strength of character, resigning himself to his fate, thus becoming a victim of Shylock’s hatred and revenge.
Shylock, a cruel, Jewish moneylender of Venice, exploits the financial needs of others by charging exorbitant interest. When his daughter, Jessica, elopes with his jewels and ducats, he is more concerned for the loss of his wealth than his daughter, wishing for her to be dead at his feet and his ducats in her coffin. A multi-layered character, on one hand, he is depicted as bloodthirsty and cunning and on the other hand, he is shown as an oppressed and despised alien.
Shylock displays his most prominent personality trait, vengefulness, when avenging the ill-treatment meted out to him by Antonio. Deceitfully luring Antonio into accepting the bond, he says that the clause of a “pound of flesh” is meant in jest. Jessica’s elopement with a Christian, Lorenzo, heightens his fury towards Antonio. In the Trial Scene, the Duke and Portia (disguised as a lawyer) appeal to him for mercy, however, he feels that he has been wronged and wants the verdict in his favour.
Shylock evokes sympathy from the audience due to his daughter’s betrayal and his daily suffering. Devout, eloquent and the champion of his race, he is outwitted in the Trial Scene only by a legal quibble. In a powerful speech highlighting racial antagonism, Shylock portrays Jews as humans with rhetorics like, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and “If you poison us, do we not die?” Thus, Shylock emerges not only as a malicious villain, but also as a voice for the oppression faced by Jews.
“The Merchant of Venice” is apt as Antonio is the central character of the whole plot. The major conflict arises from the Antonio’s ill-conceived bond story. He signs the bond, openly risking his life. The bond theme leads to the caskets episode, the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo and the climax, the Trial Scene. Thus, Antonio’s fortunes and misfortunes become the source of joy and sorrow to his friends. None of the plays’ events would have occurred had he been more active and worldly. Further, the title “The Jew of Venice” would clearly be referring to Shylock, whereas the title “The Merchant of Venice” is slightly more ambiguous and allows the audience to interpret whom they believe the “Merchant” is.