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Themes

In The Merchant of Venice characters must choose between lovers, friends, and family, personal comfort and societal norms. The explicit choices, like Portia's casket lottery, provide a frame for the entire play. The game to win Portia's hand is explicitly built on chance and the choice of her suitors.  Bassanio is faced with choosing correctly or foregoing his chance to ever have a wife again.

There are more abstract choices in the play as well. Antonio must choose between preserving his personal happiness as Bassanio's closest friend and enabling Bassanio to win a woman who will come between them. The greatest choices are often about the way people treat each other. Shylock chooses to doggedly pursue his pound of Antonio's flesh because Antonio, among others, has chosen to treat him like a dog. Antonio chooses, in the end, to deprive Shylock of his livelihood and his religion. He also chooses not to pursue his relationship with Bassanio, instead relegating himself to a minor role in Portia and Bassanio's lives.

Questions About Choices

  1. Do characters choose their dispositions? Do they feel that they have the ability to change at will?
  2. Do any characters choose to transform themselves over the course of the play?
  3. Shylock has the option of choosing to get his money back or to persecute Antonio. Why does he choose the latter? What does he hope to gain? Did he ever really intend to kill Antonio?
  4. Is Bassanio conscious of the choice between Antonio's friendship and Portia's love? Does he have to choose between them, or can he have both? How do those two characters influence his choice? Does Bassanio even make a choice in the end?
  5. Portia is introduced in the play as having no choice in whom she marries. Does she love Bassanio because she realizes she has no choice in the matter?
  6. Does Portia exert any influence over Bassanio once they are married, or is her role as a wife naturally subordinate to him?
  7. Are Portia's unorthodox choices, like cross-dressing and the ring subplot, intended to give her power over her own life?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Shylock is backed into a corner in Venice and has no choice but to lash out against the characters who constantly antagonize him.

Mercy is a choice that all of the characters could have made in order to resolve tensions. Because none of them ever chooses to be merciful, they constantly fall victim to each other's plots.

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