The Merchant of Venice remains a vital, yet problematic play. It continues to be open to a range of argument and interpretation because, as so often with Shakespeare, its essence lies beneath the surface, contained in and revealed by a strategy of ironies and antitheses. This is exemplified in the depiction of the two principal female roles: Portia, a Christian’s daughter, and Jessica, a Jew’s daughter, each burdened by and driven to challenge her father’s will. Under a veneer of romantic comedy, Shakespeare explores darker currents of lust, avarice, retribution, jealousy, sexual deceit, cruelty, religious conflict, and financial, moral, and emotional bankruptcy. Portia, with her limitless wealth, is revealed as the play’s controlling character; her actions and attitudes are ironically reflected by those of Jessica, who embodies the play’s moral perplexity. Together, they create a plot-subplot counterpoint that is crucial to understanding the play’s subversive subtext.


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pp. 115-130
Launched on MUSE
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