The Merchant of Venice is a play that declares from the outset that money makes the world go round. The title doesn’t give us a name, like Hamlet or Othello, only a profession: merchant, someone who buys and sells for a living. And in the mercantile world of Renaissance Venice, everything is up for sale.

The clearest example of this is Shylock’s bond with Antonio, where instead of accepting late payment for the debt of 3,000 ducats, he insists on a pound of Antonio’s flesh. On the one hand, the fact that human flesh has become part of a business contract shows how wrapped up we all are in the cash nexus – we cannot escape it and live. On the other hand, Shylock is offered a sum far larger than the 3,000 ducats owed to let Antonio live; his refusal suggests that there are some things more important than money, in this case revenge. The challenge for us as the audience is to decide which is worse.

By this point in the play, Shylock has been subjected to much abuse by the people of Venice. On top of that, his daughter Jessica has eloped with the Christian Lorenzo, taking with her a store of Shylock’s wealth. Shylock’s reaction to the news that Jessica has fled is reported as follows:

My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats!

Once again, a person of flesh and blood, Jessica, is equated with money, as if daughter = ducats. It is unclear whether Shylock is more upset about the fact that his daughter has betrayed him or that his bank balance has been affected. The second line reminds us what a crucial role religion has to play here, since by running off with Lorenzo, Jessica abandons her own Jewish faith. Shylock is hurt that not only has Jessica left him, she has joined the ranks of his enemies as he sees it. Therefore it is not just the loss of the ducats, but the fact that they are now returned to Christian hands. In Shakespeare’s Venice, even religion is tied up with cash flow.

But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that it is because Shylock is Jewish that he is more concerned about money than people. The giving of dowries – large sums of money and land – as a wedding present from the bride’s father to the groom was common practice at the time in Shakespeare’s England. It could be argued that that bride herself was also ‘given’ as a present into the bargain – this is what Old Capulet says to his daughter Juliet when he orders her to marry Paris: ‘[If] you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;/ [if] you be not, hang’ (Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.192). Clearly, treating women as objects of exchange between men is not limited to non-Christians.

A remnant of this still survives in some wedding ceremonies today, where it is traditional for the father of the bride to ‘give away’ his daughter to the new husband, raising the question of how far we have moved on in four hundred years.

Returning to The Merchant of Venice, there is another father who tries to control his daughter’s decision, even from beyond the grave. In the second scene, Portia complains to Nerissa that she is not free to choose a husband, because ‘the will of a living daughter [is] curbed by the will of a dead father’ (1.2.23). This is the test of the three caskets – gold, silver, and lead – which has been set out for anyone who wants to marry Portia. We are told that her father has her best interests at heart, but again the choice of a woman is circumscribed (restricted) by the will of a man.

When Bassiano comes to woo Portia, he too must attempt to pass the test set out by her dead father. We have already seen two others fail by choosing the gold and silver caskets – does this mean that wealth is not the only way to choose a wife? Bassiano seems to think so, because he chooses the lead casket over ‘gaudy gold’ (3.2.101) and silver. On opening the casket, he reads the words:

You that choose not by the view
Chance as fair and choose as true.

The message suggests that appearances are not everything, and by choosing the casket that is least highly valued, he wins the highest prize of all, Portia for his wife. He also gets all of his wife’s wealth, blurring the boundary once more between people and pounds. Do you agree that Portia should be ‘won’ in a test like this? How would you have arranged things if you had a daughter?

Shylock’s utterance – ‘O, my ducats! O, my daughter!’ – crystallizes this hidden connection between human relations and money. While other characters do not say it so bluntly, Shakespeare asks us to think about how people are related to one another. Is it through commonly held beliefs, or ties of affection, or is it simply that people are indebted to others and must go along with what they say?

Dependence comes in many forms, both positive and negative, and Shakespeare challenges us to examine our own connections with other people for less admirable motives.

The Merchant of Venice is a play that demonstrates what a huge role money plays in all our lives. Money decides who we do business with and why, it can influence our choice of partner, and in extreme cases it can threaten our well-being. It is up to us to decide, Does everything have a price-tag?

Dr Derek Dunne
Globe Teaching Associate