Although Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is considered a comedy, cruelty runs rampant throughout the entire text of the play. Most of the characters exhibit some form of cruel behavior toward one another, including Lancelot who is cruel to his father Gobbio when he runs into him on the street. He engages the old man in belittling word play because his father has very poor eyesight and cannot tell that he is actually speaking to his own son. Everyone is cruel to Shylock; in fact, he is viewed as the outsider and often referred to as the devil. Shylock is the Jewish moneylender who makes a huge profit by lending money with exorbitant interest rates to the Christian population of Venice. I will not touch on the theme of racism and prejudice in the play, but it is common knowledge that Jews were not seen in a positive light in Elizabethan England at the time when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. Shylock hates the merchant Antonio in particular, for Antonio lends money to his fellow Christians without charging any interest on the loans, thus he takes away from Shylock’s livelihood.
I am going to center my discussion of the theme of cruelty to two of the characters in the play-Shylock and Portia. Although both characters are guilty of egregious and cruel acts, Portia’s cruel acts against Shylock are seen as more acceptable for a couple of reasons. One reason is that Portia is motivated by her love for Bassanio, and another reason is that Shylock is Jewish, and heartless in his own right. Therefore, it is more socially acceptable to be cruel to him. Love makes the difference between Portia’s scheming and Shylock’s, between his litigation and hers, between his exercise of power and hers (Hobson, 201).
In the beginning of the play, we find Portia lamenting about the situation her deceased father has created for her. By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great worldBut this reason is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O, me, the word choose I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike. So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father (Act 1, Scene 2). He has willed it so that she may not marry anyone but the one suitor who picks correctly from three caskets, one casket is made of gold, one is made of silver and one is made of lead. The man who picks correctly will find a picture of Portia inside, and he will be the one to marry Portia. Portia is frustrated that she has absolutely no say in whom she will marry-she cannot refuse the suitor who chooses correctly. Another aspect of this cruel arrangement is that if a suitor does not choose correctly, he will be forever banned from marriage. He may not ever ask another woman to marry him, and he will die without an heir. Thus Portia’s dead father has left a cruel legacy involving his daughter and her suitors.
It seems that Portia is lucky in this lottery however. Bassanio chooses correctly from the three caskets and is to marry Portia, and she is happy with the circumstance. This is when the couple learns of Bassanio’s friend Antonio’s plight. Antonio had borrowed money on behalf of Bassanio, promising to pay it back when his ships came into port with their cargoes. It seems that Antonio’s ships were shipwrecked, and he cannot pay back the bond held by the lender, Shylock. Shylock is very adamant about receiving his payment from the doomed Antonio, which calls for a pound of flesh, and therefore death, if the bond is forfeited. As I stated earlier, Shylock possesses a hatred for Antonio fueled by the fact that Antonio lends money without charging interest. I hate him for he is a Christian, but more for that in low simplicity he lends out money in gratis and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice. If I catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him (Act 1, Scene 3, line 41). Portia tells her newly wedded husband to rush off to the aid if his friend, Antonio, before the marriage is consummated. It seems that Portia has a plan to disguise herself as a young lawyer and she will also go to help Antonio herself. When Shylock enters the Venetian court to ask for justice, the Duke reproaches him when he addresses Antonio-I am sorry for thee. Thou art come to answer a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch. Uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy (Act IV, Scene 1, line 3). A little further in the scene the Duke further reproaches Shylock with Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too, that thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice to the last hour of act, and then, ’tis thought, Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange than is thy strange apparent cruelty; and where thou now exacts the penalty, which is a pound of this poor merchant’s fleshWe all expect a gentle answer, Jew (Act IV, Scene 1, line 18). Portia further condemns Shylock when she is disguised as Balthazar, a young lawyer dispatched by the learned Bellario. She opines that Shylock should be merciful to Antonio because it is the right and Christian thing to do. She more or less tells Shylock that he is wrong because he is Jewish. Portia as Balthazar entreats him repeatedly to forget the bond and take the cash that is offered instead. Shylock adamantly refuses, and stubbornly appeals that he should be shown the same justice such as any other man with a forfeited bond would. He exclaims My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, The penalty and forfeiture of my bond (Act IV, Scene 1, line 213). Portia gives in and agrees with Shylock that he has a right to a pound of flesh at the expense of Antonio, but she then tells him that he cannot shed one drop of Antonio’s blood. Her cruelty towards Shylock intensifies at this point, because even after Shylock agrees to forgive the bond and take the money as payment, she tells Shylock not only will the court not honor his bond, but that the court will persecute him for his attempt at Antonio’s life. Tarry, Jew. The law hath yet another hold on you. It is enacted in the laws of Venice, if it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst which he doth contrive shall seize one half of his goods; the other half comes to the privy coffer of the stateDown, therefore and beg the mercy of the Duke (Act IV, Scene 1, line 361). Antonio adds further insult to injury when he says that he doesn’t want Shylock’s money, but that his share should be given to Lorenzo, who married Shylock’s daughter Jessica. When Jessica married Lorenzo, she willingly converted to Christianity. It is also demanded of Shylock that he immediately convert to Christianity, which is by far the cruelest act in the play. It is further decreed that upon Shylock’s death, all of his possessions should be given to his son-in-law, Lorenzo. Portia has defeated Shylock with her clever and literal interpretation of the law. Shylock’s life just drains away from him Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that. You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house; you do take my life when you take the means whereby I live (Act IV, Scene 1 line 390). Shylock agrees to the contract, but asks that he may leave the court as he has taken ill. Defeated, Shylock leaves the courtroom.
In the previous pages, I have attempted to discuss the theme of cruelty in The Merchant of Venice, paying particular attention to Portia and Shylock. Both characters have not only been the victims of cruel acts, but they have also dealt their fair share of cruelty to others. Portia is seen as a keen and intelligent woman who wielded cruelty in the name of love, specifically to help her new husband’s best friend. Shylock is seen as cruel without reason other than the fact that he is not a Christian.