To what extent can ‘ The Merchant of Venice ’ be described as a fairytale?
Throughout ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare uses many underlying structures reminiscent of fairytales. Fairytales were stories originally passed down orally to children to entertain or instruct. Most fairytales had similar characteristics such as having repeated elements that aid the audience to remember the story and help teach about moral issues. Shakespeare’s comedies also have common elements such as love and deceit, usually involving marriage for unmarried characters and mistaken identities. Shakespeare’s audience was wide, both intellectually and socially; his plays have storylines that usually deal with moral and family values, but all his comedies have a dilemma or dilemmas which are resolved with a happy ending.
The play has two main settings which vary from each other considerably. Shakespeare never describes the locations but from the characters and scenes that happen there we can tell what kind of atmosphere and setting it has. One setting is the cosmopolitan city of Venice, where many businessmen live in a commerce and law driven world. The people there are unhappy, unkind and greedy. In the Elizabethan era Venice was renowned for its wealth and diversity of cultures, being in the middle of the East and West it was a great trading city. Shakespeare portrays Venice as the ‘real world’ full of suffering. Venice is where Shylock lives and is tried and punished. Throughout the play people in Venice are never happy and the beginning of the play reflects that with Antonio asking, ‘why I am so sad’ not giving the audience an immediate good impression of Venice. Shakespeare uses words such as ‘hate’ and ‘spit’ to add to the distressing image we already have of the city. The rich society in Venice is dependent on money for support and satisfaction which is a lesson that many fairytales teach, explaining that money doesn’t buy you happiness. This is the case in Venice as no amount of money could buy Shylock the happiness he wanted. His daughter Jessica, in her opening lines, exclaims, ‘Our house is hell’, showing she is not content with her privileged life in Venice (the real world) because she is still miserable even with all the money she possess.
This contrasts with Belmont where the rich, happy and sophisticated society lives. Belmont is a fictional place full of love and happiness and Shakespeare portrays this as the fairytale world that we would all love to be in. Evidently the fictional world of Belmont is where all the romance, happiness and most of the comedy occur, as the bad and tragic events take place in Venice. The good worthy people depart to Belmont in high spirits leaving Shylock alone, penniless and heartbroken in Venice. The play happily ends in Belmont with three couples blissfully in love and all is well with everyone. The fact that Jessica and Lorenzo have chosen to elope to Belmont shows that happiness comes to those who deserve it, just like a fairy tale.
The type of comedy in each setting also differs slightly. In Belmont the humour is witty between Portia and Nerissa, or light hearted mocking of the dreadful suitors using stereotypical traits to each nationality. Whereas, in Venice there is little comedy except from Launcelot and Gratiano which is constant insulting and snobbery towards Shylock about being Jewish and of his daughter Jessica eloping and turning Christian. This again adds to the enchanting image we have of Belmont and the vulgar image we have of Venice.
The classic storyline in any fairytale is good overcoming evil and Shakespeare uses this plotline in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Antonio is seen as a kind-hearted person who values his friends’ happiness over his own and is in some ways naïve. He is referred to constantly as ‘good Antonio’ and ‘respected Antonio’. Shylock, the evil villain, looks as if he may win at the trial but Antonio is saved, thus restoring the good versus evil balance. This is archetypal of a fairytale in which the villain is usually killed or banished and the hero and heroine live happily ever after with their friends in a beautiful far away kingdom- Belmont.
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Every fairytale has an evil villain whose function is to scare, deceive and intimidate, the villain in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is Shylock, a cruel miser. The very fact that he is Jewish reinforces the idea of him being immoral as Jews were believed to be less worthy that Christians, and known for money lending with high interest. People believed that the Jews murdered Christ and were therefore in the league of the devil, which is why Shylock is continuously referred to as ‘the devil’ in the play. Throughout history Jews have been persecuted and as an audience today, we would feel great sorrow and sympathy for Shylock as we have lived after the Holocaust, but in the Elizabethan times many would have empathized with his character, and at that time him being Jewish added to the comedy of the play. In the Elizabethan era money lending was one of the few careers open to Jews as the New Testament forbids Christians charging interest on loans and the Old Testament forbids usury except in loads to non-Jews. Shakespeare’s audience would have known this and him being a moneylender added to his villainous character.
In Shylock’s first scene Shakespeare shows him to be respectable, calling Antonio a ‘good man’ but we see his true hatred towards him when he speaks aside to the audience, ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’. He is spiteful to Antonio by enticing him not only to be indebted by money but by his life. The fact that he wants ‘a pound of flesh’ gives the impression of him being ‘alien’ and carnivorous. He is reminded repeatedly by numerous characters that ‘thou wilt not take his flesh, what’s that good for?’ even Shylock himself confesses that ‘a pound of man’s flesh taken from man is not so estimable, profitable neither as flesh of mutton, beefs, or goats,’ but he seals the bond for his own vendetta against Antonio. Through this Shakespeare shows us Shylock’s vengeful side, showing us that he is only doing this because he can. Shylock answers the question by vindictively saying, ‘to bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses’ showing that he blames Antonio for all the distress in his life such as his daughter running away. Shylock as a father is another way in which Shakespeare portrays him as a villain, because he is more concerned about gaining more wealth to be an attentive father and he sees Jessica more as a possession than a person. Shakespeare purposefully begins the conversation between Shylock, Salerio and Solanio mentioning Jessica, but the conversation is swiftly changed to talking of ducats and the bond, showing where Shylocks priorities lie. This resembles the fairytale story, where the princess runs away with the prince to get away from the evil family, usually a stepmother. After Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo Shakespeare shows him to be selfish and callous as he says nothing about him loosing Jessica but is only concerned about the bond ‘let him look to his bond’ he says repeatedly, which is a key feature in all fairytales.
However, Shakespeare exhibits a villain with many human characteristics that give us an impression of an ability to love, not just hate in Shylock. When his friend Tubal tells him of what Jessica traded his stolen ring, he declares that ‘I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys’ placing Shylock in an uncharacteristic position of vulnerability, contrasting to the impression we have of him. There is an underlining idea of the Christians making him to be the way he is and that he didn’t necessarily want to act like a villain but it was forced upon him. Shylock tells Antonio that ‘ you spat on me Wednesday last,/ You spurned me such a say, another time/ You called me dog’ and yet you can ask me for money showing Antonio that he should treat Shylock as an equal because you never know when you will need help. He does however choose to lend Antonio the money, which shows him to be kind hearted and forgiving and he sincerely hopes Antonio can pay him back, ‘pray you wrong me not’. Unlike a fairytale Shakespeare makes the audience feel that Shylock has a hidden depth to his character due to prejudice and the suffering he has been subjected to over his life because of his religion. We are more sympathetic in this day and age, and maybe Shakespeare was ahead of his time when writing Shylock’s speech where he asks the Christians why they hate him so much and treat him with such little respect because, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’. In a fairytale we never feel sorry for the villain but in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare makes you, as an audience, feel sympathetic towards him and makes the Christians in the play feel guilty. He shows that Shylock is human and just because he has a different religion he still has the right to dignity and to revenge himself because ‘If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute. It will go hard, but I will better the instruction,’ makes you feel as if Shylock has ever right to his bond, as Antonio signed it and thus getting what he rightly deserves. Through this Shakespeare has added great dramatic tension because as an audience we don’t know what will happened and what should happen to be fair to both Antonio and Shylock.
Portia in some ways is a typical fairytale heroine as she is ‘a lady richly left and she is fair’, ‘her sunny locks’ giving the impression of long blonde hair maiden distinct to a fairytale princess’ image. She lives in Belmont, a land of music, luxury, and perpetual happiness. Her father is dead, and we never hear about or meet any members of her own family, much like a fairytale. Her only trouble is that she lacks a husband, but she doesn't even have to do anything about finding one; under the terms of her father's will, the right suitor will be selected when they choose the right casket containing her picture. Shakespeare uses the idea of tests in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with a number of characters usually to add comedy to the play. This is the first test that we see in the play and the heroine succeeds. Our first impressions of Portia are that she is obedient and a slightly passive princess. We admire her for being free spirited but still abiding by her father’s dying wishes. Shakespeare shows Portia to have very patriarchal values similar with that of a fairytale princess.
Although Portia is beautiful and elegant very much consistent with the fairytale princess image, she is also wise, powerful and witty which distorts the typical view of a heroine in a fairytale. At times during the play, she shows herself to be very independent and an unconventional Elizabethan young woman. She complains about the terms of her father’s will; to her relying on a man to choose the right casket seems risky, saying ‘this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband’, especially as she feels she is capable of making a good judgement on a future husband herself. We can see from her humorous comments on each suitor that this is so and she is indeed rather pernickety about each one wittily saying that one had ‘a better bad habit of frowning’ or that ‘his mother played false with a smith’. Shakespeare shows us that Portia is a woman that knows what she wants, someone who is good looking but worthy of conversation. When meeting the first suitors we know that they are not worthy because they are not described as night’s in shining armour rescuing the beautiful princess which is typical of a fairytale. However, Bassanio is described ‘as the best deserving of a fair lady’, Shakespeare uses the fairytale idea of love coming to those who deserve it and we know that Bassanio is the one. During the casket selection we are reminded that the right casket will ‘Never be chosen by any rightly but one who you shall rightly love’. In Shakespeare’s time unrequited love was one of the worst hardships to encounter and still is now, therefore as an audience we know when Bassanio arrives she will not suffer that pain. In devising the test in which Bassanio sacrifices his wedding ring, Portia shows her true intelligence, and once more proves herself to be more competent and quick witted than any man in the play. In a fairytale the hero is usual persuaded by a friend to do something they don’t particularly want to do which is where a problem frequently arises, and Shakespeare uses that idea between Bassanio and Antonio. Shakespeare makes Bassanio choose between his wife and friend.
Through the casket test and the riddles written by Portia’s father, Shakespeare uses morals typical to fairytales to determine who will ‘win’ Portia. The first casket comes with the riddle ‘who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire’, and when opened the casket revealed a skull and an inscription. The inscription states that all that glitters is not gold and tells the Prince of Morocco that he should not just look at the exterior but what is underneath; Portia is not a prize. This is a typical moral that is constantly used in fairytales. The second riddle for the silver casket says ‘who so chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves’, this is accompanied with a picture of a ‘blinking idiot’. The inscription tells them that you are a fool if you think to highly of yourself and live in a dream. Portia’s father wanted someone who wasn’t a dreamer but was grounded. Finally, in the lead casket, which Bassanio chooses, the riddle says ‘who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath’. Inside the casket, Bassanio finds a portrait of Portia and the inscription ‘you that choose not by the view, chance as fair and choose as true’. Through this riddle Shakespeare shows that the only man deserving of Portia’s love must be willing to die for her and not judge a book by its cover. Shakespeare shows the audience the characteristics that all men should have which are similar to that of a fairytale hero.
When Portia is in disguise she is instantly no longer seen as a passive princess that is obedient to any man in her life, be it her father or husband. This is where she is unique as a heroine and unlike a fairytale princess. Not only would a fairytale princess never dress as a man, but also they would never be able to execute such a plan as to rescue a man from near death using her own wit and intelligence. Shakespeare begins by making Portia appear to be sympathetic and understanding towards Shylock wanting his bond, but only suggestively asks him to ‘be merciful,/ Take thrice thy money, bid me tear the bond.’ When he refuses to be compassionate Portia twists his own words of ‘looking to his bond’ and declaring that, ‘this bond doth give thee here no jot of blood,/ The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh./ Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,/ But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed/ One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/ Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate/ Unto the state of Venice’, which is impossible, therefore freeing Antonio. When he is in trouble it is only the strength and reasoning of a woman that will save him. Shakespeare shows that Elizabethan audience not to disregard women (which is what was the norm of that era), but to infact embrace them as they are in some cases more worthy than many men. We never truly believe that Antonio will be hurt otherwise the play becomes a tragedy but Shakespeare builds the suspense with the thoughts about whether Portia will be successful in fooling both the Venetian court and her husband.
Whilst, Shakespeare does show Portia to have two distinct sides to her character, she still keeps the common Elizabethan view throughout the play, that true happiness and fulfilment comes with marriage and love, with her taking her rightful place in society. Nowadays, we would admire Portia’s individuality but in Shakespeare’s time many would have regarded her behaviour as troublesome and unrefined. Despite her independence Portia is not a rebel; she uses her talents in the service of others that she loves, her husband and friends, but still graciously accepts the subordinate wife role, ‘This house, these servants and this same myself / Are yours, my lord’.
In many ways ‘The Merchant of Venice’ can de described as a fairytale as the outline to the plot is consistent with that of a fairytale. It contains repetition of speech such as Shylock when telling Antonio to ‘look to his bond’ to secure the idea of his villainy in the audiences minds. Eventually, good overcomes evil and the happy ending in the fairyland of Belmont is where everything is resolved and social order is restored. The resolution itself is quick like a fairytale and everything that could be resolved is and there are no loose ends. However, Shakespeare has modified the simple storyline of a fairytale with its traditional values, and uniquely adapted it therefore making it appealing to his wide audience. In some ways, Portia is not seen as the passive princess that is rescued by Bassanio, but she is in fact the hero of the play. She being an active, intellectual and bold woman saves the unassertive Antonio from his death, making him to be the naïve princess being saved. Most fairytales are very light hearted and never tragic, but ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is exceedingly controversial and Shakespeare adds a great deal of political ideas involving racial awareness with the Prince of Morocco and anti-semitism towards Shylock. This is another reason as to the happy ending resolving all the issues, showing the audience that despite not ending in a marriage and having tragic events, the play was indeed a comedy.