The Merchant of Venice

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Reading and Interpretation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Icon
Human and Animal Theme Icon
Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Icon
Greed vs. Generosity Theme Icon
Reading and Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Merchant of Venice, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Reading and Interpretation Theme Icon

Instances of reading and interpretation occur many times in The Merchant of Venice. An early scene in which Shylock and Antonio bicker over the meaning of Biblical scripture shows that the all-important distinction between Jews and Christians basically boils down to interpretive differences—different ways of reading and understanding a shared heritage of texts.

The play also stages "scenes of interpretation"—in which the act of reading becomes a dramatic event. The first major instance, connected to the themes of both law and love, is when the Prince of Morocco becomes the first suitor to try to solve the riddle of the caskets, with major consequences for both Portia and himself depending on whether he interprets it correctly. This scenario repeats with both the Prince of Aragon and Bassanio. The courtroom scene, in which Portia must find an alternative way to read and understand the law in order to save Antonio's life, similarly turns an act of interpretation into a highly dramatic game with very high stakes. The Merchant of Venice shows how the practice of reading (and not just reading literature) is woven into the structures of prejudice and intolerance, love, law, and justice—how it is central to everyday life.

Reading and Interpretation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Reading and Interpretation appears in each scene of The Merchant of Venice. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Reading and Interpretation Quotes in The Merchant of Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in The Merchant of Venice related to the theme of Reading and Interpretation.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.1
Explanation and Analysis:

The merchant Antionio begins this play, just as Portia will begin the following scene, by expressing sadness. Although Portia's sadness is easier to explain -- she is not truly weary of the world in general, but is tired of being pursued by suitors, who must follow her father's test in order to try for her heart -- Antiono's sadness is more inexplicable. He protests, to his friends, that he is not worried about his ships, which are spreading his wealth abroad (and would sink his wealth if they are ruined). He claims that he is not pining for love, either. We might blame other characters of the play -- the villain Skylock or Antonio's friend Bassanio -- for Antonio's sadness, but ultimately Antonio's emotions remain enigmatic as the play continues. They provide a fitting backdrop for this comedy, though; this melancholy opening puts a stale pallor over the action of the play, which can only be removed as characters form new social bonds or receive new material goods (or, occasionally, experience both of these processes together).

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I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano—
A stage, where every man must play a part;
And mine a sad one.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker), Gratiano
Page Number: 1.1.81-83
Explanation and Analysis:

This is not our famous "All the world's a stage" moment in Shakespeare's "As You Like It;" it only briefly presents the view that men occupy different roles and does not present the seven general stages of a man's life. This statement is, however, an apt method of describing the broader pallor of emptiness which Antonio (who is the titular Merchant of Venice) introduces to the play's opening. According to this personal perspective, every individual "must play a part"; some must win, some must lose. The world is "but as the world," a bland reality that lacks imaginative possibilities, and, every man has "a part." Antonio is an individual, but he is also interpreted in association with other parts and is made up of a combination of various social, racial, ethnic, and religious categories. Tensions between these categories will develop as the play continues.

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle, where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell;
I'll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.65-73
Explanation and Analysis:

The song which Portia leads, while Bassanio is pondering and making his voice between the three caskets, is appropriately focused on true love, or "fancy." According to the song's words, love begins with visual cues or  "in the eyes" -- which the Prince of Morocco knew as well, when he urged Portia to refrain from judging him based on his appearance (as he knew she was apt to do). Besides the song's content, the mere fact that Portia is fostering this music confirms that Bassanio is her suitor of choice; we are inclined to compare Portia's reaction to his suit to her earlier reactions to prior suitors, and we can measure the extent of her approval by this comparison.

There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue in his outward parts.
Related Characters: Bassanio (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

As Bassanio chooses between the gold, silver, and lead caskets, he delivers an ornate speech about the deceptive nature of ornament -- in fields as diverse as law, religion, and beauty. In doing so, he connects these separate topics which resurface throughout the play, emphasizing the importance of substance over style. He interprets the caskets correctly, or as Portia's father would, at least, and and will choose the appropriate casket as he rejects "gaudy gold" in favor of "meagre lead." Of course, he is still drawn to Portia's beauty, and his speech is delivered with a sheen of eloquence, so the content of his speech is not entirely convincing, especially in this play which is otherwise occupied with wealth and disguises.  

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
I never knew so young a body with so old a head.
Related Characters: Duke of Venice (speaker), Portia
Page Number: 4.1.164-165
Explanation and Analysis:

In his letter to the court's judge, Doctor Bellario describes the young lawyer who will be replacing him. This lawyer is Portia in disguise-- a fact which the audience can realize but Bassanio and the rest of the court cannot. This description of Portia, then, deals with multiple layers of deception; it is associated with Portia's deception as a male lawyer and this supposed disguise of wisdom and maturity within a young body. 

In the crucial court scene, Portia will indeed live up to this weighty description; she delivers an eloquent, passionate speech about the power of mercy and also manages to use details of law and reason to spare Antonio's life. She lives up to the disguise she is inhabiting, temporarily transforming into an accomplished lawyer when the opportunity presents itself to her.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
We will answer all things faithfully.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.321
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that Portia and Nerissa have revealed their deception, Portia assumes that Bassanio and Gratiano are likely unsatisfied by their explanations thus far. So she urges them to go in, so that they may begin interrogating her and Nerissa.

Here, Portia promises to be faithful in her answers about "all things." She seems to have quickly forgotten how Bassanio and Gratiano were themselves unfaithful when they gave away their rings at the courthouse, despite their prior vows to Portia and Nerissa that they would never part from these rings. We are left, at the play's end, with a promise for full disclosure in the future. This provides a fitting end to our beginning, when Antonio's sadness was unexplained and unclear. Now that these relationships have formed over the course of the play, they can perhaps begin to remove the secrecy and unrevealed nature of characters' internal experiences -- although these relationships themselves are framed by such uncertainty, because of their connections to Portia and Nerissa's rings, and any clarity must necessarily occur off the stage, beyond the edges of the play's artificial world.