The Merchant of Venice, like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, is about love and marriage. But the path to marriage in this play is unusually hazardous. The characters compare it to the epic voyage undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts to win the Golden Fleece. In this play, Portia, the fabulously wealthy heiress of Belmont, is herself the Golden Fleece, according to her would-be husband, Bassanio. To win her hand in marriage, he must put his future at risk in an attempt to choose correctly among three caskets or chests made of gold, silver, and lead. If he chooses rightly, he wins, in marriage, the beautiful, intelligent, and supremely resourceful Portia and her great wealth. If he chooses wrongly, he must forever abandon Portia and may never propose marriage to any other woman. He would therefore die without legal heirs.
And the test of the caskets, prescribed in the will of Portia’s dead father, is not the only obstacle to Bassanio and Portia’s happiness. There also stands against them a magnificent villain, the moneylender Shylock. In creating this character, Shakespeare seems to have shared in a widespread and, from our point of view, despicable prejudice against Jews. In Shakespeare’s England there may have been no more than about two hundred Jews; however, Jews loomed large in the imagination because of myths still circulating from the Middle Ages about, for example, their ritual murder of Christians. Shylock would have been regarded as a villain simply because he was a Jew. Yet Shakespeare was led by his art of language to put onstage a character who gave such powerful expression to the alienation he felt because of the hatred around him that, in many productions of the play and in the opinions of many famous actors, Shylock emerges the hero of The Merchant of Venice. In fashioning in Shylock a character whose function is to frustrate the satisfaction that we are invited to desire for the play’s lovers, Shakespeare has, for many people, brought forth a character who rivals the lovers in the power he exerts over us.
Over the centuries Portia too has deeply engaged audiences. In her role as the daughter bound by her father’s will, one who sees herself as helpless in the face of the casket test and whose anxieties and joys we are encouraged to share, Portia is, for readers and playgoers alike, one of Shakespeare’s most appealing heroines. But it is in her role as Balthazar the young lawyer that Portia is most remembered. The speech in which she urges Shylock to show the kind of mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” that “is enthronèd in the hearts of kings” and “is an attribute to God Himself,” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous and most loved passages. For readers and audiences today, the pleasure that should accompany her saving of Antonio is clouded by what seems to us her cruel treatment of Shylock—but the role of Portia remains one that every Shakespearean actress yearns to play.