The Merchant of Venice: The World of Venice and the World of Belmont
Shakespeare’s plays are known for their structure, which is often based on similar principles. One of them is contrast, which can be applied to any element of the play including characters and settings. In fact, juxtaposition of scenes against one another is an approach of Elizabethan drama that was used recurrently by playwrights of the epoch (Halio 11). So, Shakespeare’s choice of two locations – Venice and Belmont – looks logical in this context. It would be true to state that they are more than places where events occur but they have deeper implication of contrasting the two worlds of commerce and romance, and more generally, of reality and fantasy.
Because the name of the play is The Merchant of Venice, a conclusion can be made that Shakespeare intends to make it the basic location. Meaning basic does not refer to its superior importance but reinforces the idea that the world of commerce has stronger power to a certain extent. The readers and audience of the play clearly were well acquainted with the world drawn by Shakespeare when introducing Venice. This is not in fact purely Italian city but it is rather a cosmopolitan one, where trade is the focus and some conventions like race, ethnicity and origin can be ignored in case a person is financially successful:
The Duke cannot deny the course of law.
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations (Shakespeare 3.3.4)
So, it is clearly seen that citizens of Venice are more pragmatic, down-to-earth and have different values from the nhabitants of far-away Belmont, where romance and family rule: “Readers have often remarked the language of commerce that characterizes the Venetian world of the Rialto… Belmont seems at first to be presented quite differently – talk there is of love, sexuality, familial relationships seemingly free from Venetian economic motives…” (Newman 252)
This difference is demonstrated through transformation of characters that move from one location to the other. Thus, when in Venice, Bessanio is only interested in money when trying to win Portia as his wife: “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair… Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued… Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth” (Shakespeare 1.1.6). However, when he meets the girl in Belmont, he is still charmed, no matter how he is financially biased. Apparently, one cannot say that he transforms completely, as he is still a son of his native city of commerce, yet the author reveals the difference in atmosphere which spells the characters somehow.
It is also remarkable that Belmont is presented as a kingdom where traditions and purity of blood are worshiped unlike Venice, presented as “a political economy in which states exist to ensure trade conditions among “nations” conceived as political and economic, rather than kinship, units; and nations so conceived are dangerously porous and dangerously subject to the strangers in their midst” (Adelman 95). Thus, one can say that Shakespeare is biased as to Venice’s diversity and openness to strangers; this is why he intends to draw Belmont a little more beautiful, more romantic and more traditional than Venice. Portia’s father is very choosy about a potential fiancé, and remarkably this choice has nothing to do with the estate of the future family member. The symbolism of the test suggested by the father lies in the fact that the right person should probably have some intuitive vision of right from wrong, possibly inherited through his bloodline. The very irrationalism of this situation reveals contrast between mysterious world of Belmont against pragmatic world of Venice. Researchers find symbolism in each of the cities presented in the play, naming Portia the incarnation of Belmont: “The virginal realm of Portia’s Belmont would seem to be the antidote to such dangers: her little kingdom and her body will not be open to all nations” (Adelman 95).
Thus, the question about what marriage between a Venetian man and a Belmont girl would mean is quite controversial. For the man, it would mean acquiring position and recognition in a society that is far more traditional. The drawback is that this society is less open but the advantage is that it is apparently more stable. For the girl, though, this marriage might mean enlarging the estate (though as it can be seen from the play, the potential fiancé wants to cheat his future family by borrowing some money). Yet, it is also true that getting married to a Venetian man is a certain risk in a society which is conservative, and will appear vulnerable to more aggressive commercial influence from Venice. The theme of wealth should be additionally discussed, as wealth is something that is characteristic for Belmont, too. Yet, the difference between perception of wealth in Venice is that it should be earned by hard labor, and this is why it is so crucial.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that contrast between Venice and Belmont is one of Shakespeare’s major techniques to convey his message about cultural, ethnical, moral and other differences between these worlds and between characters representing them. On a larger scale, the author pictures difference between the real world that he sees and the desired one, represented by Belmont.