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Two Cities and Their Contrast Symbolism in Shakespeare's Play

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In “The Merchant of Venice”, William Shakespeare explores the cities of contrast which are Venice and Belmont. These two locations in Italy are so antithetic to each other that even characters’ behaviours fluctuate from city to city because of this disparity between them. This Shakespeare play commences in Venice which is the world of reality. Therefore, the scenes played in the real world focus on wealth, trade, history and urban life. And so, the use of language is more formal in terms of decorum and they use a lot of conceits. Besides, Venice is predominantly male society in opposition to female dominated Belmont. Furthermore, Belmont which is a fantasy place represents ideality. Here, love outweighs other rational stuff such as money. Thus, people use simpler and humorous language, which is more proper for there than trading town, Venice; altogether, there are two locations introduced to the reader in stark opposition by Shakespeare in this play.

To begin with, the play writer uses parallel scenes between Venice and Belmont in “The Merchant of Venice”. One of the biggest differences between these two locations is crash of money and love. Venice is a city which is the centre of trade in Italy. Everything is financial there and this situation even reflects people’s speeches. Act I Scene I starts in the street with the dialogue between Antonio, Salerio and Solanio. In the very first line, Antonio says “I am so sad.”[1] and its reason is that he may lose his ships in the open seas although he thinks that he does not know the reason why he feels mournful. Also, in Act I Scene III, while Bassanio wants loan from Shylock, he tells that if he cannot pay his money back, Antonio will and Bassanio shows Antonio as guarantee for himself so that he cannot pay the money back. And Shylock continues; “He is a good man to have you understand me that he is sufficient.”[2], which means that if one person has wealth, he is reliable in this trade center. On the other hand, Belmont that Portia lives is a fantasy place which is created by Shakespeare himself. It is a place of poetry, of the sweet music, of spheres, of classical literature.[3] This city is wealthy, as well, but this property is inherited just like Portia’s wealth coming from her father unlike Venice people who merchandise to be rich and to reach their level. Moreover, this city is constructed on love. For instance, in Act II Scene I, Portia tells Prince of Morocco; “In terms of choice I am not solely led / By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes;”[4]. She implies that physical appearance of men is not the only way to her heart, there are other conditions for her in order to get married, too. She looks for the right man and wishes to fall in love with him, yet her father’s will does not let this. She has everything but love because of her father who is still in control in her life. Besides, Bassanio goes to Belmont to solve his financial problems whereas Portia goes to Venice to solve her love issues. Portia likes Bassanio and he does use her feelings to reach money. In Act I Scene I, when he finally commences to say something about Portia after talking a lot, the reader understands that money is the real aim for him. He mentions a girl who is rich and loves him much, which he discovers that from her looks. Bassanio: “In Belmont is a lady richly left, And she is fair and, fairer than the word, Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages.”[5] Furthermore, beautiful language is the symbol of decorum. Venice is a trade centre and these people merchandise to earn their own living; therefore, they should use appropriate language to be in a good situation in public. Also, they try to show their intelligence to one another by using that kind of language. Again, in the first scene, while talking about shipwreck, Salerio even personifies it; “And see my Andrew dock’d in sand, / Vailing high top lower than her ribs, / To kiss her burial”[6]. However, in Belmont, ladies do not have to use that much ornamental language so they prefer simpler and more humorous one. They speak freely however they want without thinking how to be sophisticated. City’s being ideal may be a factor for this, too. To give an example, in Act III Scene IV, Portia says in return to Nerissa’s question; “Fie, what a question’s that, / If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!”[7]. She does not like the question and she adds that if she had a dirty mind, she would understand it like she wants to turn to man for sex. She is not shy about it and says this directly.

Additionally, these two worlds differ from each other in terms of predominant gender roles in them. It can be easily said that Venice is a patriarchal society whereas Belmont is a feminine society. At the same time, this play reveals the gender discrimination in those times. In Act V Scene I, after the scene which rings are exchanged in the court of justice in Act IV, Bassanio and Grationo goes to Portia’s house in Belmont. However, ladies, Portia and Nerissa, blame them; that is why, gentlemen do not take serious their relationships and they lose their rings or give them some other women. Generally, in patriarchal societies, men do not care about such issues, they do commence to talk about how they are completely right and say that women cannot talk to men in this way. Here, gender roles are subverted by Shakespeare and men start to defend themselves. Firstly, Gratiano swears that he did give the ring to the judge’s clerk, then mentions about his physical appearance such as “a youth, a kind of boy, a little scrubbed boy”[8] so that ladies believe in what he says. Likewise, Bassanio defends himself that he lost the ring defending it, as well. Then, he continues; “… What should I say, sweet lady? / I was enforc’d to send it after him, / I was beset with shame and courtesy;”[9] Nevertheless, Venice is a male dominated city and ladies go to the court of justice as by turning to men before that defending scene. Here, Portia challenges traditional gender roles at the same time by acting like a man. Of course, their first aim is not to be recognized by Bassanio and Gratiano in the court and to help them. However, they could have done this without turning into men. Probably, ladies know that no one would listen to them and they cannot defend Bassanio and Gratiano in the court if they were women.

Moreover, Venice and Belmont can be associated with the Old Testament and the New Testament. Because Venice is a trade center, there are many foreign people from different religions in this city and Shylock who is a Jew is one of them. He is supposed to show mercy instead of insisting on getting a pound of flesh from Antonio in order to give him a lesson. Thus, Judaism is associated with the Old Testament in the play because of this strict emphasis on the agreement. On the other hand, ladies in Belmont show more mercy like God’s, just like in the last act which is about the rings of Bassanio and Gratiano, and it is linked to Christianity and the New Testament.

What is more, Venice is a historical place in contrast to Belmont, which is a fairy-tale construct. The reader can see the historical sings in Shylock’s desire for Antonio’s flesh and in the historical anti-Semitism addressed in the play: Shylock is a Jewish man and the reason why he wants Antonio’s flesh that much is that Antonio humiliated him beforehand, and now he wants revenge, he wants his blood. In Act I Scene III, when Shylock sees Antonio for the first time as the guarantor of Bassanio; “I hate him for he is a Christian; But more for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis, and brings down … He hates our sacred nation; and he rails,”[10] However, Shylock cannot obtain what he wants, or Christian blood at the end of the play and he is converted into Christianity. Shakespeare generalizes Shylock as Jewish people and Antonio as Christian people. According to Christian belief, all Jews will be converted into Christianity one day in the future. With the conversion of Shylock, the play writer means all Jews. Nonetheless, the audience does not come across such historical events in Belmont. People are totally free in terms on liberty of speech and thought in this ideal world. Even though Portia has these liberties, as well, she is not completely free even in a fairy place. She must obey his father’s will to marry a man. Susan Oldrive writes this in her article; “Portia cannot even veto her father’s choice of a husband, a right increasingly accepted in Elizabethan times.”[11] Briefly, every city has its own problems regardless of whether it is real or ideal.

Lastly, there is a difference between the possibility of pastoral life regarding the cities. Urban life is dominating in Venice due to trade. There are numerous people from different cultures and they are like stranger to one another in urban areas. People do not have much with each other as long as it is not necessary. It is seen in the relationships between Bassanio and Shylock, and Antonio and Shylock. Bassanio goes to Shylock to borrow money, all his target is to have money so as to reach Portia, not to become friend or something else. And, Shylock knows Antonio as a man who lends money to people carelessly and hates Jewish. Also, their use of language is appropriate for this urban life, as well. However, rural life turns to scale in Belmont. Generally, people are inherited in rural areas just like Portia who is rich thanks to her father’s legacy. Besides, there is not that much cultural diversity on the contrary of Venice. The reader does not see this in the Belmont scenes, either. In addition to them, Shepherds and peaceful atmosphere of Belmont could be good examples for this rural life. Shepherds which symbolize Jesus Christ are again about religion. For this reason, regarded as a saint, Portia can be associated with shepherd, too. In the sense of peaceful place, there is hardly ever trouble in this place. Commonly, all the arguments happen in Venice, not in Belmont.

Venice and Belmont are two locations in Italy that William Shakespeare uses as the scenes in “The Merchant of Venice”. These two places are opposed to each other. First of all, Venice embodies reality; therefore, wealth that they think everything financially, mercantilism which is their way of earning money, history, urban life and the New Testament are focused in Venice city. On the contrary, Belmont symbolizes ideality; thus, love which is the most crucial matter for them and the New Testament are given there. Belmont citizens are more easy-going unlike Venice’s. These characteristics redound up the language that people use. In Venice, people use financial and more beautiful language which is necessary especially for mercantilism while in Belmont, people choose to use more plain and free language. At the same time, these characteristics of the cities are identified with culture that includes language, as well, and William Shakespeare compares and contrasts these two different worlds successfully in “The Merchant of Venice.”

Works Cited

D. J. Snider. “The Merchant of Venice (conclusion).” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 6, No. 4, pg. 361-375. Lehnhof, Kent. “The Merchant of Venice: Venice and Belmont.” Chapman University Symposium. April 19, 2016. Magri, Neomi. “Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and thereabouts.” De Vere Society Newsletter. June 2003. Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, A Symposium Issue on “The Merchant of Venice” (Spring, 1993) Pg. 87-105. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. [1] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 7, Line 1. [2] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 19, Lines 13-14. [3] Magri, Neomi. “Places in Shakespeare: Belmont and thereabouts.” De Vere Society Newsletter. June 2003. [4] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 26, Lines 13-14. [5] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 12, Lines 161-164. [6] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 8, Lines 27-28. [7] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 74, Lines 79-80. [8]Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 104 Lines 161-162. [9] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 106, Lines 215-217. [10] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Collins Classics, 2011. Pg. 20, Lines 37-43. [11] Oldrieve, Susan. “Marginalized Voices in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, A Symposium Issue on “The Merchant of Venice” (Spring, 1993) Pg. 90.

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