The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s knotty tale of justice and mercy between money lenders and borrowers is, technically, a comedy. But it is not exactly a laugh a minute. Even the occasional bouts of cross-dressing and the appearance of a clown are used as symbols to flesh out the play’s central themes (pun intended). Five hundred years after its first performance, the character of Shylock has come to represent the historic prejudice faced by Jewish people, while his demand for a ‘pound of flesh’ is now a common euphemism for vengeful justice. It is no wonder, then, that productions of the play are often considered a ‘barometer’ for the mood of the times.

Justice

The big one. Shylock argues that if Antonio cannot pay his debt, he must give a pound of flesh. Eventually, Portia argues that Shylock is right — but if Antonio loses a drop of blood, Shylock himself will be punished for trying to ‘seek the life’ of a Venetian citizen. In the end, mercy is more important than following the letter of the law.

Religion

Shylock has now become a symbol for all the stereotypes used to demonise Jewish people: mercurial, self-interested and vengeful. But Shylock insists that he is only practising what he has learned from his Christian counterparts: men like Antonio who have spat on him for his whole life. Has religion become less divisive over time?

Money

‘O, my ducats! O, my daughter!’ cries Shylock when Jessica steals his money and runs away to marry Lorenzo. Throughout the play, wealth seems to be just as important as personal relationships, if not more so. Is that still the case? And is it wrong?

Women

After all the hatred, arrogance and scheming of men leads to Antonio’s life hanging in the balance as he sits in the dock, it is Portia who comes to the rescue. By dressing as a lawyer, she becomes a symbol of the need for justice and mercy which lies at the play’s heart. And yet she can only assert her moral and intellectual authority while dressed as a man.

Choice

To marry Portia, her suitor must first choose between a gold, silver and lead casket as part of a bizarre, game show-like test of his suitability. The characters’ choices define them throughout the play — especially when it comes to how they treat others.