Machiavelli and “The Merchant of Venice”

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Shakespeare’s plays endure in relevance as brilliant pieces of art beautifully capturing moments in time with underlying social commentary relevant centuries later. “The Merchant of Venice” captures the moment in Elizabethan history where the emergence of a more commerce centered economy brought into the social structure a challenge to long-held Elizabethan social traditions. Additionally, ideas of government and its involvement in mitigating economic disputes bring relevance to evaluating the themes of the play in a more political context. Although most Shakespearean plays deal with nobility, this play shows the role of government as a vehicle for resolving economic disputes. An interesting lens to view this play is the philosophy of Machiavelli and his thoughts on the use of power by individuals and institutions. Each character in this play represents a Machiavellian attribute including cunning, derision, and dominance.  This essay explores Machiavellian themes throughout the play. Analysis goes both ways, Machiavelli is a lens to evaluate the play, but also the play is a lens to evaluate Machiavelli. 

Considering one Machiavellian induces a certain idea of how that person conducts their personal and business affairs. The term is coined out of Machiavelli’s principal work, “The Prince”, where Machiavelli analyzes the principles of government whereby power is the ultimate commodity supplanting morality focused on using craft and deceit to maintain authority. Someone who is “Machiavellian” uses often subtle cunning, deception, and dishonesty to the ultimate end of maintaining power for power’s sake. “According to Machiavelli, a ruler with a clear agenda should be open to any and all effective tactics, including manipulative interpersonal strategies such as flattery and lying” (Leary 93). As Leary notes the ends justify the means and the Machiavellian ends are always having power regardless of the emotional or moral costs. Further, Machiavellians are associated with high emotional intelligence and mind reading”(Leary 94). The intelligence of the Machiavellian is critical to their successful pursuit of power. Manipulation requires an understanding and manipulation of the characters involved in the game of political chess. Any interaction among individuals could be considered a political interaction as the use and response to power is usually engaged. These precepts of the Machiavellian ethical paradigm are present in varying degrees in the main characters of Shakespeare's, “The Merchant of Venice”. 

Analyzing the motivations, emotions, and intents, as portrayed by each character, elucidates an interesting facet of each of the characteristics of a Machiavellian person. The conflict among the characters of the play surrounds concerns over money, position, the role of law, and the moral ambiguity of Christians and Jews. The connections between Machiavelli and “The Merchant of Venice” make this one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. Differing from other Shakespearean works which often include nobility, this play focuses on the moral challenges faced with social constructs of the Elizabethan era, the tension between the sin of usury in the Christian faith in contrast to usury in Judaism. Also, the rule of law is considered heavily in this play as a place to resolve disputes. In essence, the play is about money, power, and the law.  The conflict and tension of these tenets are weighed on each character, but each character responds differently. This is consistent with the human condition and is so often the case of any individual trying to reconcile social mores with personal desires. Taking each character in turn, each character presents their moral conundrum as they struggle for power. 

Considering Antonio, the merchant himself suffers from an unidentified sadness. It is opined that he is, “Suffering constant unrest because of unrequited love” (Mahon 354). This is Antonio’s love for Bassiano. It further appears that Antonio’s passionate anti-Semitism motivates him to pressure Shylock to convert to Christianity. Antonio is wealthy, but his wealth is engaged in overseas trade. Antonio is manipulated by Bassaino who attempts to woo Portia. However, Bassaino is not a man of wealth and secures a loan from Skylock. Shylock agrees to a loan but Bassaino has no collateral. Bassaino manipulates Antonio into guaranteeing the loan with a “Pound of flesh” should the debt go unpaid. This turn of events elucidates the role of money and manipulation and presents Bassaino’s Machiavellian traits. 

Bassaino uses the affections of Antonio to secure a loan so that Bassaino may present himself as a man of wealth worthy of the courtship of Portia. Antonio requites because he fears to lose the company of Bassaino. “Pray god, Bassanio come /To see me pay his debt, and then I care not!” (III.iii.36-37). Although he does care as Engle points out, “Antonio’s initiative and pervading melancholy are a result of both love concerns and money concerns, which are equated throughout the play (Engle 21-22). Antonio guarantees Skylocks loan with a literal pound of flesh to Shylock. The symbolism of this is that Antonio is willing to give of his very body for the perceived good. This act binds Antonio and Bassanio forever, something Antonio long for and Bassanio abuses as a means to another end, to woo Portia.   

Portia is highly constrained with her station in Elizabethan society and is heavily influenced by her dying father. Portia is most concerned by her future as position as a wife to whoever she marries, not so much by who she marries for his own sake (Slights 129-30). Marriage to her is a political contract and she’s more concerned with how her position will change depending on the man she marries. As a tool of manipulation, her father instills a game whereby a suitor must select the correct casket among three to chose from. Portia doesn’t appreciate being played and would be, “Happy to remain unmarried thanks to the intimidation of her father’s casket game”(I.ii.95-99). Although she is somewhat a pawn, she is able to use her cunning to influence others. She, “Uses her role as a bond maker to lever herself into a position of power over people” (Mahon 345). Portia’s is resourceful in a surprising way by using and manipulating the rules of society and law without breaking them. “When giving herself in marriage, she makes herself the more generous and thus more dignified and more powerful, just as she did in the case of the bond” (Newman 26). She’s able to resolve conflicts among the other characters with her wit and intelligence while maintaining the proper role for women of her station and this time in history. With only a brief departure as concealing her gender to during the legal proceeding, Portia uses the rules and mores in her favor, always with a keen eye ensuring she is in power.  Her cunning and ability to see the big picture is a foil for Shylock who appears to be single-minded. 

Shylock is the play’s antagonist prompting action in the other characters. Shylock is Jewish and presents a tension between the views of Christianity and Judaism regarding usury. He defends his Jewish faith and is critical of the abuses he has suffered at the hands of Christians. His most direct interaction is with Antonio whom he has lent money to. In a narrowly written contract, the loan is secured by a pound of flesh. Following default, Shylock demands the debt be paid. Although there are many pleas for Antonio’s life, Shylock ignores them and demands a trial. Bassaino offers Shylock twice the money to pay the debt but Shylock is narrowly focused on taking his pound of flesh. Shylock believes his contract is sound and will stand in court. The court agrees, however, Portia, disguised as a man points out that he cannot make Antonio bleed pursuant the contract. This exemplifies a Machiavellian trait in Shylock because he hastily agreed to the contract without fully understanding it. It is reasonable to believe that the entire focus of Shylocks business transaction with Antonio is inspired by the desire to avenge Antonio’s anti-Semitism. Shylocks myopia ensnares him in what amounts to a conspiracy against a Venetian citizen. The consequences of this action force Shylock to forfeit his wealth and convert to Christianity. This serves as a win for Antonio in his anti-Semitism. 

Intersecting character traits elucidate Machiavellian aspects of each of the main characters in the play. However, the paradox of cruel mercy is most apparent with the tango between Shylock and Portia in the arena of law. The notions of cruel mercy are inspired by Machiavelli. The judicious use of cruel mercy is a powerful tool for the ruler. The consequences for Shylock were indeed cruel, but merciful in that his life and bulk of his property was spared. These actions were the result of Portia’s cunning manipulation. She validated the terms of the contested contract, but also exposed the crimes of Shylock completely turning the tides against Shylock. Her motivations were not purely noble,  “It is not out of some benign 'happy disposition’ that Portia argues most effectively in Venice’s court of justice. On the contrary, she is thoroughly “provoked and stung to anger” (Bolduc 36). Instead of using weapons to avenge an injustice, she relies on her quick wit and reason. It seems out of frustration that Portia is provoked to use the court as a vestibule for the inherent annoyance of hypocrisy witnessed in Antonio and Shylocks almost pedantic adherence to their religious beliefs. Portia seems repulsed by the adherence to strict codes, and this is a reflection against her own frustration with the rules of Elizabethan society and the dying wish of her father. However, she doesn’t stray from the rules, she understands them and works them to her advantage. 

During the legal proceeding, Portia is motivated against the fallacies of adherence to irrational aspects of ethos. In a Machiavellian sense, the person with the power is immune from obligation. Not acting in accord with the law or societal expectations is a show of power. Portia represents a part of that, instead of acting against the social mores and prescribed social roles, she uses the laws to her advantage in a new show of power. She establishes dominance by making bail on ‘good faith’ but then requiring compensation (Mahon 345). This is an example of cruel mercy. She maintains her dominance by staying at the top of a pyramid of devotion, Antonio’s devotion to Bassanio translates to devotion to Portia because of Bassanio’s devotion to Portia (Mahon 347).

England in the Elizabethan era was undergoing a great deal of economic change, which may have inspired Shakespeare’s underlining social commentary in this play. Commerce and capitalism were increasing. “The credit market and the marriage market were, along with land sales, the main methods of raising money available to the Elizabethan gentry and aristocracy” (Engle 20). As money began to become a commodity in itself, something to be traded for profit (usury), Christians were forced to reconsider their prohibition against it. Jewish bankers and merchants were not restricted from lending money for profit and therefore were making a great deal of money in usury. 

Usury pitted one religion against the next and just like Antonio and Shylock, both were businessmen operating in the economy, wealthy. They engaged in a business relationship that ultimately had to be settled by the courts. This presents an interesting commentary on the role of government in settling business disputes. It certainly wasn’t the providence of the court in this play to evaluate the legal positions of Christianity and Judaism, but that was only part of the dispute. Although Antonio was an unapologetic anti-Semite, Shylock was vengeful against Antonio. Shylock turned out to be the more manipulative of the two where he attempted to use a business deal and the law to exact revenge against the persecution of his people. However, this backfired to some degree. The point is that it was the government that settled the dispute. Of note though, it wasn’t the Duke acting as judge, it was Portia, excited by anger and frustration, that used the law to exact cruel mercy against both Antonio and Shylock. This inclusion of the role of government is an expansion of governmental power consistent with the expansion of the commercial economy. This invites the notions of Machiavelli into evaluating the character traits exemplified in this play. 

This essay has explored the characters of, “The Merchant of Venice”, as caricatures of different Machiavellian themes. The interactions among the characters each elucidate a dominant character trait consistent with Machiavellian thought. The play is about power, influence, and cruel mercy. Each character brings to the play a measure of cunning each with individualistic motivations for social change. Posterity can look back on this play and learn something about Shakespeare and Machiavelli by the powerful characters portrayed here. Manipulation, money, power, and emotion all play into the lives of man regardless of time. They are also valuable dramatic tools inspiring in those who enjoy them enduring questions of how individuals make choices to act and to what ends.

Works Cited

Bolduc, Paula, "The Cruelty of Mercy: Oxymoronic Paradoxes" (2008). Mercy Illuminates. Paper 10.

Engle, Lars. "'Thrift is Blessing': Exchange and Explanation in the Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 37.1 (1986): 20-37. Print.

Janik, Vicki K. The merchant of Venice: A Guide to the Play. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.

Leary, Mark R., and Rick H. Hoyle. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York: Guilford Press, 2009. Print.

Mahon, John W., and Ellen Macleod Mahon. The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Newman, Karen. "Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in the Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare Quarterly 38.1 (1987): 19-33. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and William Lyon Phelps. The Merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923. Print.

Slights, Camille Wells. Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealths. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Print.