Though Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is classified as a comedy, it poses three blatant issues which pose a question of ethics – at least to the modern mind.
First and probably most obvious is the anti-Semitism, the story of Shylock. He is a money lender, and charges interest with which he makes his living. He is the major villain of the play, for the Christians see charging interest when lending money to be sinful. Shylock is seen to be a miser, as he strictly demands that his contracts be upheld. Antonio, for the sake of his friend Bassanio, goes to Shylock to borrow three thousand ducets for the term of three months. Shylock reminds Antonio that he has spat upon him, cursed him, insulted him, and yet he comes to him for needed money.
Antonio said that he is likely to continue to treat him in such a manner, and confronts Shylock with the immoral behavior of charging interest, and not lending as a gesture of friendship. Then Shylock tells Antonio that instead of charging him interest, they’ll go to the notary, and should the note not be paid in full and on time, he’ll instead take a pound of flesh from Antonio, from the body part which he should desire. Antonio agrees, as all of his cargo is expected in be in and sold a month before the note is due. However, when the ships don’t come in on time due to varied causes, and it’s time for Antonio to pay up, the two men end up in court — which brings us to the second issue of ethics.
Portia, Bassanio’s new wife, dresses up as a doctor of law in order to defend Antonio in court, not to Bassanio’s knowledge. She dresses up as a man, as of course, women cannot be doctors of law. Therefore, Bassanio does not recognize the brilliant young esteemed lawyer as his wife. Portia has no training, no degree nor license, yet she goes to the court in disguise and takes Antonio’s fate into her own hands. Though she had discussed legal strategy previously with Bassanio, she’s had no preparation whatsoever. Granted, she pulls it off, though she was unethical in initially making the attempt. Not only does she spare Antonio his pound of flesh, but turns the case around putting Shylock on trial.
She challenges him to take his ounce of flesh, but in doing so, he cannot spill an ounce of Christian blood, by the law of Venice. Then, as Shylock drops the case, Portia pursues him further, charging him with another law of Venice – since he had pursued the life of a citizen of Venice, that the man which he had pursued has the right to half of his goods, and the other half is to go to the city treasury. Antonio makes the decision that half the goods go to the state, but in settlement for him, he surrenders his right to half of Shylock’s goods on two conditions, that he will all of his estate to his daughter and her new husband (newly estranged who’d run off to marry and Christian), and secondly, that Shylock himself convert to Christianity.
The third question of ethics comes about with the situation of the rings. When Bassanio married Portia, she gave him a ring and made him swear to never part with it. Her servant girl, Nerissa, did the same with her new husband Gratiano. At the time of the trial, the two women were disguised as men, and for having served as they did in the trial, saving Antonia, they asked for the rings as payment for their services. The men agreed – how could they not, for the life of their friend? Then, when the men returned home to their wives, the women berate and curse them for having given away the rings. (Only later to confess that they were the men who requested them, only for having done so to test whether or not their husbands would surrender them.)
A reader may judge the characterization of this play as a comedy, yet be deeply affected by the ethical standards set forth within it.
The Necessary Shakespeare. Second Edition. Bevington. “The Merchant of Venice.” Pages 74-112