The Merchant of Venice

by

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice: Metaphors 2 key examples

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Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Shylock as a Dog:

Christians use animal rhetoric against Shylock on numerous occasions, not merely comparing him to a dog but insisting that he is one. The most vicious use of this metaphor comes from Gratiano, who calls out to Shylock in the courtroom, 

O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog,

[...] Thy currish spirit

Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,

Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,

And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,

Infused itself in thee, for thy desires

Are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous. 

Gratiano deprives Shylock of his humanity by refusing to use his name and equating him with an animal. He calls Shylock not only a dog—as others previously have—but a wolf, asserting that the moneylender has become the undomesticated, most wild version of his bestial self. And Gratiano does not simply say that Shylock acts like a wolf, but that his soul, the very essence of his being, once belonged to such a creature, meaning that his temperament and actions are those of the same beast.

Gratiano expands upon his claim as he notes that the wolf inhabiting Shylock’s body exhibited such heinous behavior that it earned a hanging sentence; the wolf was particularly malevolent, and so, therefore, is Shylock. Gratiano also refers to Shylock’s mother as an “unhallowed dam,” the former word meaning “unholy” and the latter typically used to refer to animals rather than humans. Gratiano’s hatred thus extends beyond Shylock, as he degrades the moneylender’s mother for her religion and bestiality; he does not only despise Shylock, but, likely, all Jewish people. Gratiano’s speech therefore highlights not only Shylock’s inhumanity but his own cruelty towards those different from himself, and serves as a microcosm for Christian prejudice in Venice. 

Notably, in the prior act, Shylock insists that he will collect Antonio's flesh and states,

thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,

but since I am a dog beware my fangs.

Even Shylock has accepted the canine metaphor that his enemies use against him, and he is ready to exact a harsh revenge. But he has become vicious primarily due to the mistreatment he has faced, demonstrating the cycle of hate that exists in Venice. 

Act 4, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Castrated Antonio:

In court, before the trial begins, Antonio mentally prepares to die. Though Bassanio urges his friend to maintain courage in Act 4, scene 1, Antonio uses a metaphor comparing himself to a decidedly weak animal:

I am a tainted wether of the flock,

Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit

Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.

Antonio comes across as a Christlike figure: not only does he appear destined for death, but he seems to embrace his fate for Bassanio's sake—he is "meetest" or most fit for death, and "so let [him]" die. Moreover, in referring to himself as a "wether" (a castrated male sheep), Antonio also signals a role reversal between himself and Shylock. Whereas the merchant used to call Shylock a dog, now Antonio has become the so-called animal, reflecting how Shylock has gained power and Antonio has lost it. He is a "tainted" animal and the "weakest" fruit that doesn't survive long on the branch and isn't fit for a long, fruitful life in this world.

The castration element of this metaphor adds yet another layer: it suggests that Antonio lacks sexual potency and the ability to have children, thus supporting some modern critics' claim that he is gay and in love with Bassanio.

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Explanation and Analysis—Shylock as a Dog:

Christians use animal rhetoric against Shylock on numerous occasions, not merely comparing him to a dog but insisting that he is one. The most vicious use of this metaphor comes from Gratiano, who calls out to Shylock in the courtroom, 

O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog,

[...] Thy currish spirit

Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,

Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,

And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,

Infused itself in thee, for thy desires

Are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous. 

Gratiano deprives Shylock of his humanity by refusing to use his name and equating him with an animal. He calls Shylock not only a dog—as others previously have—but a wolf, asserting that the moneylender has become the undomesticated, most wild version of his bestial self. And Gratiano does not simply say that Shylock acts like a wolf, but that his soul, the very essence of his being, once belonged to such a creature, meaning that his temperament and actions are those of the same beast.

Gratiano expands upon his claim as he notes that the wolf inhabiting Shylock’s body exhibited such heinous behavior that it earned a hanging sentence; the wolf was particularly malevolent, and so, therefore, is Shylock. Gratiano also refers to Shylock’s mother as an “unhallowed dam,” the former word meaning “unholy” and the latter typically used to refer to animals rather than humans. Gratiano’s hatred thus extends beyond Shylock, as he degrades the moneylender’s mother for her religion and bestiality; he does not only despise Shylock, but, likely, all Jewish people. Gratiano’s speech therefore highlights not only Shylock’s inhumanity but his own cruelty towards those different from himself, and serves as a microcosm for Christian prejudice in Venice. 

Notably, in the prior act, Shylock insists that he will collect Antonio's flesh and states,

thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,

but since I am a dog beware my fangs.

Even Shylock has accepted the canine metaphor that his enemies use against him, and he is ready to exact a harsh revenge. But he has become vicious primarily due to the mistreatment he has faced, demonstrating the cycle of hate that exists in Venice. 

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