Real vs. Ideal in The Merchant of Venice

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      Shakespeare's delicate balancing of the worlds of Venice (the real) and Belmont (the ideal) is another central issue in The Merchant of Venice. On one side is the city of Venice, which reflects a complex reality that includes many different principles but also many contradictions. Venice is supposedly governed by Christian values. However, the Christians are shown to be hypocritical. Christian values advocate charity, mercy, and virtue, and yet Antonio discriminates against Shylock and further denigrates him by ultimately forcing Shylock to renounce Judaism completely and embrace Christianity.

      In addition, although Christian values support the idea of loaning money without charging interest, Shylock and other Jewish businessmen contribute a mercenary dimension to the affairs of the city, in which lending money for interest is considered a legitimate business practice. Further confirming this practice, breaches of lending contracts are immediately redressed with legal action. In other words, usury, which supposedly goes against Christian principles, is sanctioned by Venetian civil laws. Hypocrisy is also exposed in the Christian attitude toward Jewish people in the city. Although accepted by the Venetians on an economic level, Shylock and his fellow Jewish families remain outsiders in the city. They are cursed by the Christians, who profess love and acceptance for all mankind.

      Portia and Belmont represent the ideal, the counterpoint to Venice, by embodying the qualities of an idealistic world that markedly contrasts with the hypocrisy, revenge, and commercial exploitation that dominate affairs in Venice. ln essence, Belmont represents a fairy-tale realm where happiness and love flourish and Christian charity and forgiveness are actually upheld. These benevolent qualities manifest themselves in Portia, whose confrontation with Shylock in the courtroom can be interpreted as a direct clash between the retributive justice ordained in the Old Testament (which Shylock represents) and the mercy and charity advocated in the New Testament. Shakespeare provides The Merchant of Venice with a happy ending by emphasizing the love, joy, and forgiveness that thrives in Belmont. Nevertheless, the reader is left with the unsettling impression that hypocrisy and hatred persist just down the road in Venice.

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