Economics in The Merchant of Venice

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      Economics is a prime concern in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and critical perspectives often treat the play as a clash between emerging mercantile sensibilities of the times and religious traditions. During Shakespeare's era, usury (lending money for interest) grew to be an accepted business practice as profits became increasingly more important than religious principles.

      Usury was one of the few ways that Jews were allowed to make a living in Elizabethan England. Pressure was mounted on this profession when Christian moneylenders lent funds without charging interest. This made it more difficult for Jewish people to make a profit. The rivalry between Antonio and Shylock, in this play, is often viewed as an example of two conflicting business ethics. Although Shylock represents usury as a pragmatic and legitimate business practice, Antonio embodies a more idealistic perspective of the practice of lending money. Following Christian precepts, merchants were to generously lend their money interest-free because their wealth was such that they could afford to do so. This fundamental economic contention, in addition to the two characters' religious differences, establishes their enmity toward one another and creates a rivalry that reaches its climax in the trial sequence in act 4.

      The city of Venice is built on marshy islands, with many so-called streets actually comprised of water canals. Boats and ships were a part of most every Venetian's life because water was everywhere in the city. Because of its strategic position on the Adriatic Sea, Venice became a major shipping port, controlling most of the trade between Europe and the Far East up until the end of the Renaissance. Shipping was a very important part of the city's economy and money flowed into the hands of the many families involved in the trade. In past ages, the money had been controlled by the nobility, whose wealth was invested in the land. With the large shipping industry in Venice, though, the power of money moved into the merchant class. People in the banking industry also gained wealth, as aristocrats began a trend of borrowing money for frivolous things, such as gambling and partying, and then failed to repay their loans. Bankers often took portions of the nobility's landholdings in payment, thus increasing the bankers' profits. The business class of merchants grew drastically during the Renaissance. Many merchants invested large amounts of money into the building of great mansions and churches during this time. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Venetian Renaissance are considered the golden age of Venetian wealth.

      Bassanio's marriage to Portia demonstrates another economic dimension of the play. Because of rising costs during the Renaissance, aristocrats, in many cases, had to concern themselves with obtaining more wealth to maintain their expected lifestyle, and a generous dowry (from a woman to her future husband) was considered a respectable means of achieving this end.

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