Contract, Friendship, and Love in The Merchant of Venice

HomeArticlesContract, Friendship, and Love in The Merchant of Venice


Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has been interpreted in numerous ways that range from focusing on the roles of women and marriage to examining questions of justice and mercy to exploring the appropriate relationship between Christian and Jews.[1] While most critics have paid particular attention to the character Shylock and the themes associated with him, I will look at the figures Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, and Jessica to show how their decisions, actions, and relationships reveal the moral limitations of Venice as a commercial republic.[2] Specifically I will explore how Venice, as a commercial republic that is based on contract, has a corrosive effect on non-contractual, moral relationships like friendship, love, and marriage. By examining each of these characters, I will illustrate how a world of commerce and contract has a tendency to reduce all relationships to motives of self-interest, utility, and profit.

From the play it is made known that Venice is a city based on commerce with its law of contract enforced – even if a pound of flesh were demanded – for otherwise the law would lose its legitimacy and all trade and justice would cease to exist. As Antonio observes about his bond of flesh with Shylock, who had demanded its fulfillment:

The Duke cannot deny the course of laws;

For the commodity that strangers have

With us in Venice, if it be denied,

Will much impeach the justice of the state,

Since that the trade and profit of the city

Consisteth of all nations (III.iii.26-31).[3]

Although in this particular case the enforcement of contract seems unreasonable, the great benefit to a city like Venice that is founded and governed by commerce and contract is that motives of self-interest, utility, and profit override the natural tendency to exclude, persecute, or kill strangers.[4] Christian and Jews are able to co-exist, albeit acrimoniously, in Venice to exchange goods and services. Instead of excluding or killing Jews, Christians seek to make a profit with or out of them and vice versa. Prejudice still exists in Venice but persecution and murder do not.

The Christian commandment of loving thy neighbor appears to have failed as a political principle to organize the city: commerce, contract, and profit have provided the path to stability, cooperation, and toleration. But to maintain this peace, impartial and enforceable justice is required. Even if it were against his own inclinations, the Duke must conduct the trial of Antonio to maintain the rule of law in Venice (IV.i.1-33).[5] If an exception were made in this case, Shylock correctly asks why should the Duke not break other contracts, such as the purchasing of slaves (IV.i.89-103; 38-39)? The answer is obvious enough: chaos would result if contracts were no longer enforced, because nobody would be able to trust one another. To retain stability in the city and the legitimacy of his rule, the Duke therefore must enforce the contract of a pound of flesh. As we know later in the play, the contract is enforced but with the qualification that a “if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (IV.i.309-311). Under this new condition, Shylock cannot fulfill his end of the contract and consequently will suffer the penalties for it.

This theme of Venice as a commercial republic based on contract has been explored by other scholars and has been even presented in recent performances.[6] For example, some like Lars Engle and Fredrick Turner argue that the play is about patterns of exchanges, purchases, and pledges that range from the physical to the abstract, while other critics look at the use of bonds – natural, emotional, commercial – as the theme that unities the play.[7] Another set of commentators contend that the practice of usury is the central feature of The Merchant of Venice, with even some pointing out the historical and contemporary economic parallels to play.[8] This contextualization of the play continues in more recent studies that place The Merchant of Venice in a judicial and legal context.[9]

However, these studies have neglected the effect that contractual relations in a commercial republic have on non-contractual ones like friendship, love, and marriage.[10] Whereas previous studies have focused either on the contractual relationships or the non-contractual ones, this article will explore the interaction between these two types of relationships. Critics who see the play as a pattern of exchanges and purchases or revolving around the question of bonds fail to address the question about the incommensurability of non-contractual relations with contractual ones. And for those scholars who either historically contextualize or draw interesting parallels between the play and contemporary economics, they overlook how the play charts the moral, social, and political implications of a politics where its public sphere is the domain of calculation, commerce, and contract. This article will remedy this inattention, although it is indebted to these previous studies that have tangentially touched upon this topic: the effect of contract and commerce on friendship, love, and marriage and their social and political ramifications.

Antonio’s Friendship

The Merchant of Venice opens with Antonio’s speech about his own sadness, with the explanation of it escaping him:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad;

It wearies me, you say it wearies you;

But how I caught it, found it, or came by it

What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,

I am to learn.

And such a want-wit sadness makes of me

That I have much ado to know myself (1-7).

His companions, Solanio and Salerio, suggest that commerce or love as possible causes of his sadness, but these options are dismissed by Antonio (I.i.41-45, 47). The cause of Antonio’s sadness has befuddled critics, who have offered several explanations about the cause of his sadness from suppressed homoerotic feelings for Bassanio to a Christ-like pursuit of spiritual perfection.[11] However, I suggest another possibility: Antonio is sad because, on the one hand, he desires a relationship that more meaningful than one predicated on contracted; but, on the other hand, he recognizes that such a relationship is difficult, if not impossible, in the commercial republic of Venice. In other words, Antonio longs for a friendship that is rooted in some non-contractual value, like Aristotelian or Ciceronian virtue, instead of utility or profit.[12]

Because of its commercial ambitions, Venice makes meaningful relationships more difficult. In fact, Antonio’s own experience in commerce has trained him to view relationships solely in contractual terms. He is a successful merchant who takes calculated risks, such as spreading his fortune into three different ventures at sea and whose appetites usually do not outstrip his resources (I.i.177; I.iii.61-64, 156-59; III.ii.266-71). Because of his self-discipline and successfully weighing benefits against risks, Antonio needs not concern himself with material wants. What he does lack is a non-contractual relationship like friendship that is based on moral values like virtue. But because of his inexperience in this realm, Antonio’s attempts of forming a non-contractual friendship with Bassanio fails because he mistakes the material for the moral. This overcompensation by Antonio not only leads to a failure to establish a friendship based on virtue but almost costs him his life.

Of course, friendship can be based on a contract of self-interest, utility, and profit; but the highest form of friendship, according to Aristotle, is a non-contractual one that is founded on virtue.[13] This perfect form of friendship is between people who are good and similar with respect to virtue, where they wish for each other’s good because they are good themselves. It also requires a type of equality of exchange, for friends receive and wish the same thing from and for each other (1158b1-2). For good people, they would want to receive and wish virtue from and for their friends. For Aristotle, it is this type of friendship that is most noble, stable, and lasting as long as both parties remain good (1156b10-14). To love a friend is, in the best sense, to love “one’s other self” and thus be able to participate in the perfect economy of both sentiment and virtue. Antonio aspires for this type of friendship but, given his commercial soul, he does not know how to achieve it because of his trade, training, and dwelling.

When Bassanio, a young nobleman whose generous habits have eaten up his inheritance, enters the scene, there is not one word about Antonio’s countenance exchanged between them. Antonio instead inquires about Bassanio’s secret pilgrimage, revealing that Antonio was waiting to receive Bassanio because the latter had made it known that once again Antonio’s assistance is needed (I.i.119-21). Bassanio initially ignores Antonio’s question and rather confesses of his profligacy but refuses to complain about it because:

. . . my chief care

Is to come fairly off the great debts

Wherein my time, something too prodigal

Hath left me gag’d. To you, Antonio,

I owe the most in money and in love,

And from your love I have a warranty

To unburthen all my plots and purposes

How to get clear of all the debts I owe (I.i.127-34).

It is important to note that when asked about the lady of the secret pilgrimage, Bassanio not only responses with a discussion of his finances but that he sees the marriage to “a lady richly left” as a way to repay his debts to Antonio (I.i.161). Bassanio, who appears to be Antonio’s closest companion, is not only profligate with his and his friend’s monies, but he partially, if not predominantly, sees the world in terms of self-interest, utility, and profit.[14]

Thus, the chief care of Bassanio is not the lady of Belmont but his debts and particularly the debts he owes Antonio. But the money he has received from Antonio was gratis. It is the means by which Antonio signifies something that cannot be assigned a calculated value: his love (I.i.153-60, 184-85). For Antonio, one can owe money but one cannot owe love, at least as he has defined it. This is evident in the way that Antonio offers more than a loan to Bassanio but “My person, my extremist means / Lie all unlock’d to your occasions (I.i.138-39). He even agrees use a pound of his own flesh as collateral to Shylock, whom he clearly detests, in order to loan Bassanio the three thousand ducats (I.iii.152-81).

Clearly Antonio’s actions are not rational, which is surprising, since he is a successful merchant that requires one to calculate risk correctly. What Antonio does not understand is that perfect friendship is not grounded in the absolute repudiation of contract for the needless sacrifice of oneself but rather is rooted in a type of reciprocity based on moral values like virtue. This reciprocity also must be relatively equal, something Antonio does not understand in his confusion to trade a pound of his own flesh for the value of Bassanio’s friendship. The material merely symbolizes the moral significance of friendship and is not, as Antonio wrongly thinks, the substitution of it.

But after his life is spared, Antonio continues to perceive the world in contractual and commercial terms. When Portia reveals to everyone that she is Balthazar, to whom Bassanio, on the urging of Antonio, gave his wedding ring as a token of gratitude for savings his friend’s life, everyone is stunned (IV.i.452-54). In revenge to Bassanio for relinquishing his wedding ring to Balthazar, Portia promises him that she will be as liberal with their marriage bed as he was with his wedding ring (V.i.223-29). After Bassanio pleads for forgiveness, Antonio speaks in support of his friend and describes what had transpired as a series of commercial transactions:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,

Which but for him that had your husband’s ring

Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,

My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord

Will never more break faith advisedly (V.i.249-53).

Portia, in turn, replies back in the language of commerce and contract that Antonio shall be Bassanio’s “surety” – the person who assume the debts of another – in Bassanio’s and Portia’s new pledge of marriage. The return of the ring to Bassanio is not from Portia to Bassanio but from Portia to Antonio who then gives it back to Bassanio. In a sense, Bassanio participates in the marital contract of Portia and Bassanio.

Shakespeare leaves it open to whether Antonio will eventually understand the value of non-contractual relationships like friendship and marriage, although it is evident that Antonio acknowledges his debt to Portia, when he proclaims, after hearing his ships have safety returned, “Sweet lady, you have given me life and living” (V.i.286). Whether Antonio means his “life and living” only literally – his pound of flesh and ships – or metaphorically is unresolved in the play, thereby leaving open the question whether moral values like friendship can exist in Venice. Regardless of how one interprets these questions in The Merchant of Venice, friendship is an important good for us and something without which we cannot live. But on what foundation friendship should and can be based is one of the questions that Shakespeare’s play seems to be asking us.

Bassanio’s Friendship and Marriage

But as important as it may be for the good life, friendship is ultimately subordinate to marriage in the play.[15] At his trial Antonio twice places his friendship with Bassanio as something to be valued higher than Bassanio’s marriage. When he believes that he is about to die, Antonio instructs Bassanio:

Commend me to your honorable wife,

Tell her the process of Antonio’s end,

Say how I lov’d you, speak me fair in death;

And when the tale is told, bid her be judge

Whether Bassanio had not once a love (IV.i.273-77).

Bassanio replies that he would sacrifice everything he possesses – his life, his wife, and his estate – “Here to this devil [Shylock], to deliver you” (IV.i.286-87). Watching this in the disguise of Balthazar, Portia remarks that “Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer” (IV.i.288-89). The remark is humorous because of its implied truth: Antonio’s and Bassanio’s friendship is meaningful but is not amendable to be part of the commercial transaction vis-à-vis the marriage between Bassanio and Portia. Nevertheless, both Antonio and Bassanio repeat this mistake after Antonio is saved. Although Bassanio initially resist Balthazar’s request for the wedding ring, he eventually confers it to Balthazar after Antonio’s urging (IV.i.452-54).

Back in Belmont when Portia hears that Bassanio had bestowed his wedding ring to Balthazar, she immediately chastises Bassanio for not understanding its worth: “If you have known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring, / Or your own honor to contain the ring” (V.i.199-201). The ring symbolizes the moral relationship of love instead of contract, which Bassanio had failed to understand. In his defense, Bassanio provides a three-folded explanation of why he gave the ring to Balthazar: 1) the lawyer was man and not a woman; 2) the lawyer had saved the life of Antonio and therefore he was bounded by honor to give it him; and 3) if Portia were there, she would have concurred with his actions (V.i.209-22).

Bassanio omits the fact that Antonio had urged him to give the ring to Balthazar – an explicit admission about valuing friendship over marriage – and instead resorts to an argument of honor. But Bassanio wrongly understands honor as a type of contract: Antonio’s life is worth Bassanio’s marriage. But marriage and friendship are incommensurable goods: they cannot be compared and therefore cannot be traded. Each is valued as its own good with marriage being a superior one over friendship. Honor properly understood would have Bassanio recognize that Balthazar should be honored as should his friendship with Antonio but not at the expense of his marriage with Portia.

But why is marriage superior to friendship? Portia’s reply to Bassanio’s explanation provides a clue to answering this question:

Let not that doctor e’er come near my house.

Since he hath got the jewel that I loved,

And that which you did swear to keep for me,

I will become as liberal as you,

I’ll not deny him any thing I have,

No, not my body nor my husband’s bed (V.i.223-28).

Shakespeare suggests that marriage is superior to friendship because of its procreative aspect. Traditionally marriage was the way to create and socialize children into society: friendship, for all its virtues and value, cannot do this. Furthermore, the sexual and procreative act of marriage not only produces children but unifies the body and soul of both partners. This spiritual and physical unity is symbolized in the wedding ring which should be accorded the highest honor.

The fact that Bassanio fails to understand this, or is unable to act upon this when it conflicts with friendship, reveals his contractual thinking about relationships: friendship and marriage are commensurable goods that can be exchanged as circumstances permit. It is only when he is confronted with the possibility that Portia could also see their marriage as contractual and commensurable, e.g., such as having an affair with the lawyer, that Bassanio recognizes the error of his ways, as Portia observes: “In both my eyes he doubly sees himself” (V.i.244). Of course, the marital conflict is resolved when Portia reveals that she is in fact Balthazar; but Portia requires Bassanio to swear an oath of fidelity and “on credit’ that will be guaranteed by his friendship with Antonio (V.i.266-70). If Bassanio were to violate his oath, then his friendship with Antonio is to be forfeit.

Both Antonio and Bassanio fall short in participating in meaningful relationships: Antonio is still alone at the end of the play as he was in the beginning and his friendship with Bassanio has become subordinate to Bassanio’s and Portia’s marriage. Although Antonio aspires for perfect friendship, he was not able to achieve it because his companions, including Bassanio, behave out of self-interest, utility, and profit rather than out of moral values like virtue. As a result, Antonio mistakes money as the essence rather than as a symbol of non-monetary values like friendship and engages in irrational behavior to the point of literally risking self-annihilation as proof of these moral values. At the end of the play, it is unclear whether Antonio has learned how non-contractual relations like friendship and marriage should be understood and valued.[16]

Bassanio fares better than Antonio but it is not clear whether he has learned to value marriage and friendship for their own sake. Bassanio agrees that his friendship with Antonio will be the collateral to guarantee his marital oath and therefore his friendship will be subordinate to his marriage; otherwise, Portia will be unfaithful. However, this understanding is explained and agreed to in the contractual language of Venice in the supposedly non-contractual place of Belmont. There is no evidence in the play, particularly in the final act, that Bassanio has actually learned the value of marriage, or even friendship, on moral grounds; or, that he knows their value but lacks the social tools to participate in a meaningful relationship. Whereas Antonio acted out of a misguided sense of friendship in giving a pound of his own flesh to Shylock, Bassanio relinquished his wedding ring to Balthazar at Antonio’s urging because of the debt he owed Antonio. It is entirely possible and very likely that Bassanio ultimately submitted to Portia’s demands of valuing their marriage over his friendship not because he understands the value of marriage in and of itself but because he fears that he will lose his wife and his newly-acquired estate.[17]

Portia’s and Jessica’s Marriages

Like Antonio in the beginning of the play, Portia suffers from weariness of “this great world” in Belmont because she bound by her father’s will that decrees she wed only the individual who passes his trial of caskets (I.ii.1-2, 21-35). This trial requires suitors to solve a riddle that filters out those who want to marry Portia for the wrong reasons. In effect, Portia’s father has bound his daughter by a contract that transcends his own death. Although Belmont appears to have a different set of values when compared to Venice, it is actually governed by the same laws of contract.[18]

The father-daughter relationship is formulated in contractual terms and is symbolized by three caskets trial. With contractual relations undergirding the city, Belmont possesses the same advantages as Venice with its welcoming of foreigners to woe for Portia’s hand: Frenchmen, Moroccans, Spaniards, Germans, English (I.ii.39-105; II.vii, ix). But, like Venice, this contractual foundation of Belmont also has a corrosive effect on the characters’ non-contractual relationships because they perceive all values as commensurate with one another. This moral deterioration is most evident in the marital relationship between Bassanio and Portia, with especially the latter relinquishing his wedding ring so easily. An examination of this marriage will show how contractual Belmont leads both characters to think and act out of self-interest.[19]

Both Bassanio and Portia’s father conflate Portia’s persona with the estate of Belmont in their desire to count her as property over which to have exclusive dominion. Portia stands poised to be transferred to the winning suitor, the portrait hidden in one of the three caskets that symbolizes her objectification (III.ii.115). But in spite of being bound by her father’s will, Portia is able to influence the trial’s outcome, when Bassanio, whom Portia favors over the other suitors, is helped by her song in selecting the correct casket (III.ii.63-72).[20] Bassanio is able to depict the clues in Portia’s song as he remarks, “The world is still deceiv’d with ornament,” and proceeds to select the lead casket (III.ii.74). The contract is fulfilled as guided by Portia’s song to a conclusion that both Portia and Bassanio desire. Portia has a husband that she prefers, and Bassanio has claim to “This house, these servants, and this same myself / Are yours – my lord’s! – I give them with this ring” (III.ii.170-71).

However, Bassanio’s correct choice of the lead casket ends up exacerbating rather than diminishing the problem of importing contractual relations into the marital world. On winning Portia, Bassanio immediately becomes indebted to his new wife, who has positioned herself as a creditor rather than as a prize to be handed over. In response to Bassanio’s victory, Portia sets about the task of assessing her worth:

I would not trebled twenty times myself,

A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more


That only to stand high in your account,

I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends

Exceed account (III.ii.152-55).

In other words, Portia presents herself as type of investment that appreciates value over time and can be redeemed at some point in the future.

Although Portia initially trusts Bassanio with her house, servants, and herself, she later changes the terms of the contract where she becomes both owner and possessor of Bassanio (III.ii.166-67, 170-71). Portia declares that “Since you [Bassanio] are dear bought, I will love you dear,” indicating that Bassanio is the debtor to her, after she learns that Bassanio has only credit from a friend whose life now hangs in the balance (III.ii.313). This assessment of her relationship with Bassanio echoes her earlier statement, where she said, “when you part from, lose, or give away / Let it presage the ruin of you love, / And be my vantage to exclaim on you” (III.ii.172-74). This inversion of the usual situation, which the husband typically imposes fidelity on the wife, is not only a demonstration of feminism but a form of feminism that conceives and explains the non-contractual relationship of marriage in contractual terms.[21]

Bassanio similarly perceives their relationship in contractual terms of debts and credits, as he correctly has identified the “gentle scroll” to “come by note, to give and to receive” (III.ii.139-140). This “note” is the bond that must be “confirm’d, sign’d, ratified” by Portia, the person who will provide him the necessary funds (III.ii.148). The only medium Bassanio has at his disposal to seal the deed is not funds, as these are borrowed from Antonio, but  “Only my blood speaks to you [Portia] in my veins” (III.ii.176). Bassanio can only offer his blood as collateral to ratify the nuptial bonds between him and Portia. This abstraction of one’s own body as a type of property to be exchanged exists because of the contractual mindset that exists in both Venice and Belmont: the former in the characters Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio; and the latter in the figures Portia and her father.[22]

This creditor-debtor perspective of marriage also appears earlier in the play, when Salerio compares Lorenzo’s relationship to Jessica in the same language: “To seal love’s bonds new made, than they are wont / To keep obliged faith unforfeited!” ( Like Portia, Jessica is bound to her father; but unlike Portia, this bond is also religious as well as paternal. Jessica has a choice to honor the bond with her father, Shylock, or follow her desires to flee with Lorenzo. But whereas Portia remained faithful to her father’s will, even when she was tempted to break it, Jessica chooses to break both the paternal and religious bond with her father (III.ii.13-14).[23] Because “Our house is hell,” Jessica decides to join her lover, along with converting to his religion: “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (II.iii.19-21).

Both women also are associated with caskets and wealth: Portia with the casket trial and Jessica with the “caskets” she throws to Lorenzo that are stolen from her father ( Once freed from her father’s restraint, Jessica and Lorenzo spend their stolen wealth with carelessness, even trading the “turquoise,” which symbolizes the betrothal of her father and mother, for a monkey (III.i.118-23). Jessica’s callousness to her father contributes to Shylock’s increasingly dehumanization but also highlights the contrast between her behavior and Portia’s. While Jessica has recklessly spent their stolen money, Portia has carefully conserved her wealth to make her husband a debtor in their relationship. If it were not Portia’s assistance at the end of the play, the marriage between Jessica and Lorenzo probably would have ended in calamity.

The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo therefore is treated sympathetically in The Merchant of Venice, yet there are uneasy undertones that mark Jessica’s breaking of her paternal, and perhaps religious, contract with her father.[24] Other than the character Launcelot, Jessica is the only person who breaks a contract in the play.[25] Like Antonio at the end of The Merchant of Venice, it is not clear whether Jessica’s and Lorenzo’s marriage will be successful, as they do not renew their nuptial vows. By contrast, Portia and Bassanio re-pledge themselves to each other, with using Antonio’s friendship with Bassanio as collateral, and seem to be headed towards future happiness.

Except Shylock, those character who conceive and act in contractual terms are successful, while those who do not, such as Antonio and Jessica, fare less well. Because both Venice and Belmont are cities founded upon contract, the regimes make those who act non-contractually, whether agreeing to unreasonable loans or breaking paternal bonds, melancholic without knowing the motive behind it.[26] They sense the corrosive effects that contract and commerce have upon non-contractual relations like friendship, love, and marriage but are unable to operate successfully outside the contractual foundations of Venice and Belmont. Only those who are able to calculate correctly like Bassanio and Portia will be content in such a regime. Values incommensurate with contract must either be re-conceptualized in contractual terms to be successful or face failure in a world governed by self-interest, utility, and profit.


The pattern of exchanges enforced by contracts is one, if not the, dominant theme in The Merchant of Venice. The three thousand ducats Bassanio borrows from Antonio is both the price Bassanio pays to enter the casket trial and the contractual equivalent of a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral for Shylock’s loan. The leaden casket that Bassanio chooses is the one that contains the portrait of Portia, which in turns symbolizes his right to marry her. Portia interprets that right as a right of possession over her property and person as symbolized by the wedding which she gives to her new husband. As the betrothed of Bassanio, she then offers many times the value of the three thousand ducats to ransom the life of Antonio (III.ii.299-302).

But at the trial Shylock refuses, claiming that a pound of Antonio’s flesh is no different than the flesh of any other animal (IV.i.89-103). Prior to Jessica’s betrayal, Shylock detested Antonio but was this hatred was moderated by practical motives; after Jessica’s unfaithfulness, Shylock has become monomaniacal in his quest for revenge (I.iii.160-70; III.i.116-30).[27] In the demand of a pound of Antonio’s flesh, the Duke describes Shylock’s mind as unchangeable:

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,

Uncapable of pity, void and empty

From any dram of mercy (IV.i.4-6).

In spite of the Duke’s repeated pleads – and Balthazar’s famous account – of mercy, Shylock is adamant that the contract be enforced. Unlike the Duke’s plead for mercy, which is based on utilitarian concerns, i.e., a potential loss of profit, Balthazar’s entreaty is rooted in values that are religious and moral (IV.i.17-33; 184-205). By tempering justice, mercy blesses both the giver and receiver of the contract, thereby making both participants divine-like. But for Shylock, justice is enough. His pursuit to fulfill the contract, even at the cost of someone else’s life, is a reflection of the moral limitations of Venice as a commercial republic based on contract.

Balthazar returns the favor to Shylock with a strict interpretation of the contract that not one drop of blood be taken otherwise “thy land and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate / Unto the state of Venice,” for “as thou urgest justice, be assur’d / Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st” (IV.i.310-11, 315-16). Even when Shylock asks only for the loan’s principal, Balthazar refuses on the grounds that “He shall have merely justice and his bond” and then charges and sentences him for attempted murder (IV.i.339; 346-63). Ultimately, Shylock retains his life but loses his fortune and religion, as he is forced to convert to Christianity (IV.i.381-91).[28]

After sparing Antonio’s life, Balthazar mischievously demands Bassanio’s wedding ring as the wage for this service, thus transforming Antonio’s pound of flesh into Portia’s ring (IV.i.426-28). Later in Belmont, Portia demands to see the ring and feigns jealousy at its loss, accusing Bassanio of giving it away to another woman and threatening to sleep with the lawyer, to whom Bassanio gave the ring (V.i.223-29). When Portia finally relents and returns Bassanio his ring, she gives it first to Antonio who in turn gives it back to Bassanio, thus renewing her wedding vow with Bassanio on the collateral of her husband’s friendship with Antonio.

Thus, The Merchant of Venice reveals the moral limitations of a commercial regime based on contract and the corrosive effects it has on non-contractual relationships like friendship, love, and marriage. This is evident in the decisions, actions, and relationships of Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, and Jessica in the play: Antonio foolishly risks his life out of friendship; Bassanio views friendship as commensurate with marriage; Portia perceives of her marriage in contractual and commercial terms; and Jessica’s breach of contract leads to unhappiness. Although he ends the play on a happy note, Shakespeare has given us a cast of characters who break paternal bonds, fail to understand friendship, and perceive marriage in contractual and commercial terms. The conclusion one can reach is that, in spite of its advantages, regimes based on commerce and contract ultimately fail to create the conditions for non-contractual relations to flourish.

Among early modern writers, Venice had enjoyed mythical status because of its political institutions and ideals of republicanism.[29] As a successful model of a mixed constitution, Venice had developed an elaborate system of governance to reduce the influence of fraction and enjoyed an economic prosperity that appeared to follow from its political organization. How the Venetians were able to accomplish this feat was of interest to the English and perhaps even to us today.[30]

What is interesting is that Shakespeare shows us not only the advantages of the commercial and contractual republic with its multicultural society and economic abundance but also its shortcoming in terms of human relations and moral values. In spite of its watery depth, Venice’s commercial and contractual foundations make human relationships superficial and merely transactional. The republic’s moral limitations with its corrosive effects on friendship, love, and marriage are inextricably tied with the benefits of religious tolerance, rule of law, and material wealth. It would seem that this is the price that the citizens of any commercial and contractual republic must pay for in exchange for these goods.



 [1] I would like to thank referees, Richard Avramenko, Brianne Walsh, and the University of Wisconsin Political Theory workshop for their criticism of this article.

Most critics have focused on the themes of justice and mercy as respectively represented by the character Shylock and the city Venice and Portia and Belmont. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1925), 106-17; J.W. Lever, “Shylock, Portia and the Values of Shakespearian Comedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly 3 (1952), 383-86; John Russell Brown, The Merchant of Venice (London: Methuen, 1955); C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 163-91; W. H. Auden, “Brothers and Others.” In The Dryer’s Hand and Other Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 218-37; Nevill Coghill, “The Theme of The Merchant of Venice.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Merchant of Venice,” ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 108-13; Albert Wertheim, “The Treatment of Shylock and Thematic Integrity in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970), 75-87; Raymond B. Waddington, “Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice, and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice,” English Literary History 44 (1977), 458-77.

For other themes in the play, refer to Barbara K. Lewalski, “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962), 327-43; Thomas H. Fujumura, “Mode and Structure in The Merchant of Venice,” PMLA 81 (1966), 449-511; Peter G. Phialas, Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966); Danson Lawrence, The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978); Isabella Wheater, “Aristotelian Wealth and the Sea of Love: Shakespeare’s Synthesis of Greek Philosophy and Roman Poetry in The Merchant of Venice,” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 44 (1993), 16-36.

Scholars also have looked at the role of women in the play. Camille Slights, “In Defense of Jessica: The Runaway Daughter in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980), 357-68; Karen Newman, “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchanges in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987), 19-33; Lynda Boose, “The Comic Contract and Portia’s Golden Ring.” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988), 241-54; Carol Leventen, “Patrimony and Patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice.” In The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), 57-79; Olvia Delgado de Torres, “Reflections on Patriarchy and the Rebellion of Daughters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello.” Interpretations 21 (1994), 333-51.

Finally, there are commentators who believe there is no coherent plot or theme in the play. Leo Salinger, Shakespeare and the Tradition of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 298-317; Norman Rabkin, “Meaning and The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 1-32; David N. Beauregard, “Sidney, Aristotle, and The Merchant of Venice: Shakespeare’s Triadic Image of Liberty and Justice,” Shakespeare Studies 20 (1988), 33-48; Derek Cohen, Shakespeare’s Motives (London: Macmillan, 1988); John Lyon, The Merchant of Venice (Boston: Twayne, 1988).

[2] For critics who see Shylock as the pivotal figure in the play, refer to John W. Draper, “Usury in The Merchant of Venice,” Modern Philology 33 (1935), 37-47; E.C. Pettet, “The Merchant of Venice and the Problem of Usury,” Essays and Studies 31 (1945), 19-33; C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, 163-91; Frank Kermode, “The Mature Comedies.” In Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), 220-24; Allan Bloom, “On Christian and Jew.” In Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 13-33; Paul N. Siegel, “Shylock, the Elizabethan Puritan, and Our Own World.” In Shakespeare in His Time and Ours (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 337-38; John R. Cooper, “Shylock’s Humanity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970), 117-24; Lawrence, Danson. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice, 1-18; Marc Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe: Verbal Usury in The Merchant of Venice,” Kenyon Review 1 (1979), 65-92; René Girard, “’To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice.” In Literature and Society, ed. Edward W. Said (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), 100-19; Burton Hatlen, “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 91-105; John Barton, “Exploring a Character: Playing Shylock.” In Playing Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1984), 169-80; Richard Arneson, “Shakespeare and the Jewish Question,” Political Theory 13 (1985), 85-111; Derek Cohen, “Shylock and the Idea of the Jew.” In Shakespearean Motives (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 104-18; Samuel Ajzenstat, “Contract in The Merchant of Venice,” Philosophy and Literature 21 (1997), 262-78; Martin D. Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997); Jay Michaelson, “In Praise of the Pound of Flesh: Legalism, Multiculturalism, and the Problem of the Soul,” Journal of Law 98 (2005), 1-31; Susannah Heschel, “From Jesus to Shylock: Christian Supersessionism and “The Merchant of Venice,” Harvard Theological Review 99 (2006), 407-31; Gorman Beauchamp, “Shylock’s Conversion,” Humanitas XXIV (2012), 55-92.

[3] Citations of the play are from G. Blackemore Evans et al., ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 254-85.

[4] Both Bloom and Torres make this point explicitly. Allan Bloom, “On Christian and Jew” 14-16; Olvia Delgado de Torres, “Reflections on Patriarchy and the Rebellion of Daughters,” 339. For more about the sources that influenced Shakespeare’s understanding of Venice, refer to Bloom’s first footnote as well as endnotes eight, nine, seventeen, twenty-nine, and thirty of this article.

[5] For interpretations of the court scene as a conflict between law and equity or justice and mercy, refer to endnote one as well as Maxine MacKay, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reflection of the Early Conflict Between Courts of Law and Courts of Equity,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), 371-75; Andrews Mark E. Law versus Equity in The Merchant of Venice (Boulder: Colorado University Press, 1965); George W. Keeton, Shakespeare’s Legal and Political Background (London: Pitman, 1967), 132-50; Ruth M. Levitsky, “Shylock’s as Unregenerate Man,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977), 243-63.

[6] A recent production that emphasizes commerce in the play was Daniel Sullivan’s New York production in Central Park in 2010. Ben Brantley, “Theater Review: The Merchant of Venice, “Railing at a Money-Mad World,” June 30, 2010. Available at Topics/Subjects/T/Theater&_r=0moc.semityn.2retaeht&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1348624665-6C3Joxzn81A7UMTrD+CmkA;

Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare & Shylock,” The New York Review of Books, September 30, 2010. Available at

[7] Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” English Literary History 29 (1962), 239-62; MacKay, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reflection of the Early Conflict between Courts of Law and Courts of Equity”; Robert Hapgood, “Portia and the Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” Modern Language Quarterly 28 (1967), 19-32; John P. Sisk, “Bondage and Release in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969), 217-23; E. F. J. Tucker, “The Letter of the Law in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976), 93-101; Jan Lawson Hinely, “Bond Priorities in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature 20 (1980), 217-39; William Chester Jordan, “Approaches to the Court Scene in the Bond Story: Equity and Mercy or Reason and Nature,” Shakespeare Quarterly  33 (1982), 49-59; Lars Engle, “’Thrift is Blessing’”: Exchange and Explanation in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986), 20-37; Charles Spinosa, “Shylock and Debt and Contract in The Merchant of Venice,” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 5 (1993), 65-85; “The Transformation of Intentionality: Debt and Contract in The Merchant of Venice,” English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994), 370-409; Frederick Turner, Shakespeare’s Twenty-First-Century Economics. The Morality of Love and Money (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[8] C. L. Barber, “The Merchants and the Jew of Venice: Wealth’s Communion and an Intruder.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice, ed. Sylvan Barnet (Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 11-32; Shell, “The Wether and the Ewe”; William Chester Jordan, “Approaches to the Court Scene in The Bond Story: Equity and Mercy or Reason and Nature,” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982), 45-59; Donna M. Kish-Goodling, “Using ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in teaching monetary economics,” The Journal of Economic Education, 29.4 (1998), 330-39; Suzanne Penuel, “Castrating the Creditor in “The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature 44 (2004), 255-75. For the methodology of understanding the play in a historical context, refer to Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” English Literary History 49 (1982), 765-89.

[9] For those who argue that the practice of humans being used as collateral was a common one during Shakespeare’s time, refer to Theodore B. Leinwand, Theater, Finance and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Linda Woodbridge, ed., Money and the Age of Shakespeare: Essays in New Economic Criticism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Valerie Forman, Tragicomic Redemptions: Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Natasha Korda, “Dame Usury: Gender, Credit, and (Ac)counting in the Sonnets and The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 60 (2009), 129-53; Amanda Bailey, “Shylock and the Slaves: Owning and Owning in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 62 (2011), 1-24.

[10] Harp makes a comparison of risk-taking in business and love, but he does not explore the origins or how these parallel activities are related in the play, while Sharp believes that gift-giving rather than contractual consent is the dominant relationship among the characters, thereby severing the connection between non-contractual and contractual relations. Shirley and Kerrigan look at the use of promises and swearing in Shakespeare’s play, which is similar to contracts but lack their binding force.  Frances Shirley, Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare’s Plays (London: Allen & Unwin, 1979); Ronald A. Sharp, “Gift Exchange and the Economies of Spirit in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” Modern Philology 83 (1986), 250-65; William Kerrigan Shakespeare’s Promises (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999); Richard Harp, “Love and Money in The Merchant of Venice,” Modern Age (Winter 2010), 37-44.

[11] For those who attribute the cause of Antonio’s sadness to religious or philosophical reasons, refer to Lawrence W. Hyman and Thomas H. Fujmura, “Antonio in The Merchant of Venice,” PMLA 82 (1967), 649-50; Allan Holaday, “Antonio and the Allegory of Salvation,” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968), 109-18; R. Chris Hassel Jr. “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 6 (1970), 67-74; J. A. Bryant, Jr. “’The Merchant of Venice’ and the Common Flaw (For C.T.H.)” The Sewanee Review 81 (1973), 606-22; Monica J. Hamill, “Poetry, Law, and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia’s Role in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature 18 (1978), 229-43; David Lowenthal, Shakespeare and the Good Life (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 147-72; Henry S. Turner, “The Problem of More-than-One: Friendship, Calculation, and Political Association in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 57 (2006): 413-42.

Other critics have argued that Antonio’s condition is due to the conflict between friendship and marriage. John D. Hurrell, “Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 3 (1961), 328-41; Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970), 109-16; Walter F. Eggers, Jr., “Love and Likeness in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977), 327-33; Alice N. Benston, “Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 30 (1979), 384-85; Cynthia Lewis, “Antonio and Alienation in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’” South Atlantic Review 48 (1983), 19-31; Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 3-22; Michael Zuckert, “The New Medea: On Portia’s Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare’s Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, ed. Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996), 3-36.

For explanations of Antonio’s sadness as suppressed homosexual feelings, refer to Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism 10 (1960), 119-33; W. H. Auden, “Brothers and Others.” In The Dryer’s Hand and Other Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 218-37; Steven Patterson, “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999), 9-32.

Finally, there are those who believe that Antonio’s melancholy is motiveless. Janet Spens, An Essay on Shakespeare’s Relation to Tradition (Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1916), 45; John Middleton Murray, Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936), 155; Bernard Grebarnier, The Truth about Shylock (New York: Random House, 1962), 215-19.

[12] It is not unreasonable to assume that some ethical presuppositions that informed the late Elizabethan period had roots in classical Greek and Roman philosophies. It is well-known that Aristotle’s Ethics and Cicero’s On Duties were part of the intellectual and educational culture of the period; and these specific works were cited by the widest range of writers on the most diverse questions. The Ethics appeared in both public and private inventories two or three time more often than the Politics; and On Duties was ubiquitous in English grammar-school classrooms throughout the sixteenth-centuries for instruction in Latin. Neal Wood, “Cicero and Political Thought of the Early English Renaissance,” Modern Language Quarterly 51 (1990), 185-207; David Harris Sacks, “The Greed of Judas: Avarice, Monopoly, and the Moral Economy in England, ca. 1350-ca.1600,”Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28 (1998), 263-307; Howard Jones, Master Tully: Cicero in Tudor England (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1998), 120-42; Henry Turner, The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580-1630 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), 47-50, 62-63, 65. Also refer to Isabella Wheater, “Aristotelian Wealth and the Sea of Love: Shakespeare’s Synthesis of Greek Philosophy and Roman Poetry in The Merchant of Venice.”

[13] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. H Rackham. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1156b8-19. Subsequent citations are in-text. For the other types of Aristotelian friendships, utility and pleasure, refer to 1156a6-30. For more about Aristotle’s account of friendship, refer to Stephen Salkever, “Taking Friendship Seriously: Aristotle on the Place(s) of Philia in Human Life.” In Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought, ed. John von Heyking and Richard Avarmenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 53-83; John von Heyking, “’Sunaisthetic’ Friendship and the Foundations of Political Anthropology,” International Political Anthropology 1 (2008), 179-93.

[14] Bassanio does not seem to operate entirely out of self-interest, as the next lines in his description about Portia indicate that he does recognize virtue “And she is fair and, fairer that word, / Of wondrous virtues” (I.i.161-63). However, this conflict between self-interest and virtue manifests itself again when Bassanio decides to value his friendship with Antonio over his marriage to Portia, when Bassanio gives his wedding ring, albeit reluctantly, to Balthazar (IV.i.452-54).

[15] This is the consensus among critics. John D. Hurrell, “Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice”; Lawrence W. Hyman, “The Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice”; Walter F. Eggers, Jr., “Love and Likeness in The Merchant of Venice”; Alice N. Benston, “Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Merchant of Venice”;  Cynthia Lewis, “Antonio and Alienation in ‘The Merchant of Venice’”; Michael Zuckert, “The New Medea: On Portia’s Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice.”

[16] Both Lowenthal and Holmer argue that Antonio does achieve a type of self-knowledge at the end of the play: Lowenthal see Antonio as representative of classical philosophical knowledge in contrast to revelation, while Holmer interprets Antonio as being bound in a more perfect love with Bassanio and Portia. Although Antonio is now part of the community formed by Bassanio’s and Portia’s marriage, it is not evident in the play that Antonio has learned what friendship truly is. Lowenthal, Shakespeare and the Good Life, 147-48, 170-72; Joan Ozark Holmer, “The Education of The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature 25 (1985), 307-35.

[17] It is important to note, particularly for the next section of this article, that by Shakespeare’s time, the notion that a woman could be owed by her father or husband was being challenged. While fathers and potential husbands did have a claim to a woman’s legal persona, they had no rights to her actual person. Furthermore, married women were not considered property and a woman’s interest in property could not be entirely denied. Probate evidence of the period indicates that woman had control over property, particularly over land, than what the law had admitted. This was particularly true for women of higher social status or who possessed greater wealth than their husbands. Finally, sealed bonds that dictated a daughter’s marital choice would have been unusual during Shakespeare’s period, as daughters had some say in their choice of a husband. David Seipp, “The Concept of Property in Early Common Law,” Law and History Review 12 (1994), 29-91;  Amy Louise Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1993); B. J. Sokol and Mary Sokol. Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[18] For critics who disagree with this similarity between Belmont and Venice, refer to endnote one.

[19] Surprisingly critics have failed to see the contractual and commercial language and thinking of Portia. For other interpretations of her role, refer to Robert Hapgood, “Portia and the Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond”; Herbert S. Donow, “Shakespeare’s Caskets: Unity in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968), 86-93; Monica J. Hamill, “Poetry, Law, and the Pursuit of Perfection: Portia’s Role in The Merchant of Venice”; Joan Ozark Holmer, “Loving Wisely and the Casket Test: Symbolic and Structural Unity in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978), 53-76; Alice N. Benston, “Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Merchant of Venice”; Harry Berger, Jr. “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981), 155-62; Karen Newman, “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchanges in The Merchant of Venice”; Lynda Boose, “The Comic Contract and Portia’s Golden Ring”; Michael Zuckert, “The New Medea: On Portia’s Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice”; Barbara Tovey, “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000), 261-87.

[20] Tovey points out that Portia’s song contains several words that rhyme with “lead,” such as “bred” and “head.” Barbara Tovey, “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice”; also see Michael Zuckert, “The New Medea: On Portia’s Comic Triumph in The Merchant of Venice.”

[21] For more about a feminist interpretation of the play, refer to the critics listed in the first, nineteenth, and twenty-third endnotes.

[22] Other references where Bassanio abstracts his body as part of his marital contract with Portia can be found in III.ii.183-85 and V.i.177-79.
[23] For more about the relationship between fathers and daughters in the play, refer to Leo Rockas, “’A Dish of Doves’: The Merchant of Venice,” English Literary History 40 (1973): 339-51; Camille Slights, “In Defense of Jessica: The Runaway Daughter in The Merchant of Venice”; Karen Newman, “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchanges in The Merchant of Venice”; Lynda Boose, “The Comic Contract and Portia’s Golden Ring”; Carol Leventen, “Patrimony and Patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice”; Olvia Delgado de Torres, “Reflections on Patriarchy and the Rebellion of Daughters in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello.”

[24] Jessica is one of the few, if not only, Shakespeare female characters, who at the end of the play does not reconcile with her father and is possibly happy. When patriarchal approval is withheld, the result is often the fate of a Juliet or Desdemona. A significance difference between Jessica and these other two heroines is her conversion to Christianity, whereas both Juliet and Desdemona remain Christian throughout their plays. Jessica’s faith in her husband and religion to save her suggest an explanation as to why her fate may be different: “I shall be sav’d by my husband, he hath / made me a Christian (III.v.19-20)!

[25] For more about Launcelot, who breaks the master-servant contract in the play, refer to René E. Fortin, “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice,” Studies in English Literature 14 (1974), 259-70.

[26] It is interesting to note that the melancholy of Antonio at the beginning of the play parallels the melancholy of Jessica and Lorenzo at the beginning of the second scene of the fifth act. Both parties are sad but they do not know why.

[27] Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 96, 98-101; Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond,” 248.

[28] Shylock’s forced conversion strikes most critics as controversial. For the numerous interpretations on its significance, refer to the second endnote.

[29] For more about republicanism in early modern Europe, refer to J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1975), 333-60; Blair Worden, “Classical Republicanism and the Puritan Revolution.” In History & Imagination: Essays in Honor of H.R. Trevor-Roper,  Hugh Lloyd-Jones, ed. Valerie Peltonent, and Blair Worden (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1981), 182-200.

[30] Markku Peltonen shows how widely republican attitudes extended among Elizabethan writers. Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); also refer to Nicolai Rubenstein, “Italian Political Thought 1450-1530.” In The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 1450-1700, ed. J. H. Burns with Mark Goldie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 30-65; David Norbrook, Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric, and Politics, 1627-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 15-20; Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

For republicanism in Shakespeare’s own work, refer to Andrew Hadfield, “Shakespeare and Republicanism: History and Cultural Materialism.” Textual Practice 17 (2003), 461-83; Shakespeare and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Julia Reinhard Lupton, Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 75-101.


This article was originally published with the same title in Perspectives on Political Science 43:4 (2014): 204-12.

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan where he teaches political philosophy, constitutional law, and American Politics. He is also the university's pre-law adviser and the author and editor of several books. He is a Board Member and editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and the editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).