The Merchant of Venice


William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice: Style 1 key example

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Explanation and Analysis:

A number of linguistic choices characterize the style of The Merchant of Venice. Firstly, much of the play's dialogue deals with the language of economics. In addition to the more overt examples—such as the frequent mentions of Antonio's business and Shylock's bond—discussions about money overlap heavily with matters of love. A fundamental aspect of Jessica's elopement, for example, is the money that she steals from Shylock, and later, Salerio implies that Shylock cannot distinguish between his daughter and his ducats when he discovers that Jessica has run away. Even Portia describes the casket game as “the lott’ry of my destiny,” and the gilded caskets showcase opulence themselves. This stylistic choice demonstrates how Venetian society is deeply entangled in matters of wealth, risk, and greed.

Shakespeare also uses a great deal of religious language in the play. For example, Shylock cites the Book of Genesis in Act 1, Scene 3; Antonio describes himself as a "tainted wether" and is painted as a Christ figure willing to sacrifice himself for his friend; Portia (disguised as Balthazar the lawyer) describes the heavenly rewards of showing mercy in Act 4, Scene 1; and Shylock calls Portia "a Daniel" in reference to the famous prophet in the Hebrew Bible. It makes sense that the play uses so much theological language, as religion is a central concern and the source of essentially all of the story's conflict. 

Lastly, Shakespeare strategically switches between prose and verse throughout Merchant. As is typical in Shakespeare's plays, members of lower societal status tend to speak more in prose, while members of higher rank speak more in verse. For instance, Shylock's servant Launcelot Gobbo speaks entirely in prose, emphasizing that he is a less educated member of society and primarily here for comic effect. Each of Portia's suitors, meanwhile, uses verse for the elaborate speeches in which they attempt to deduce the winning casket. Morocco, Aragon, and Bassanio are not only learned men—through these refined speeches, they actively try to showcase their intellect.

The prose-verse divide also exits between matters of emotion and more calculated dealings. Antonio and Shylock, for example, use verse to set the terms of the loan in Act 1, Scene 3—but in Act 3, Scene 1, Shylock offers his impassioned "if you prick us" speech in prose. Shylock's sentiment is deeply moving, and its form conveys profound emotion (rather than a lack of education or wisdom). The use of prose vs. verse creates somewhat of a linguistic hierarchy—and yet, Shakespeare's employment of the two styles is not clear-cut. Characters can defy certain expectations, allowing for surprising moments of power, weakness, and room for interpretation.