Thursday, October 27, 2016

Classical Imagery in "The Merchant of Venice"

Share it Please
The Merchant of Venice is notable in Shakespeare's catalouge as being fraught with ambiguity.  From the vague Antisemitism of Shylock's characterization to the possible romance between Antonio and Bassanio, the play is interesting in how it utilizes contradictions and ambiguities to create engaging characters.  There is therefore a lot of material for a research project in this play.  Based off my reading and discussions with my colleague Elise Simmons, I would like to potentially research how the repetition of classical imagery presents characters who are trapped in the past and have a difficult time moving forward.
In my Slack discussion with Elise, much of our discussion centered around how Shakespeare's careful manipulation of literary devices animates a series of fascinating, three-dimensional characters.  Salerio, for example, uses a lot of pretentious, flowery metaphors in contrast to Antonio's plain speech.  Portia and her maid use prose instead of verse when they are speaking in Act 1 Scene ii.  Lancelot  meanwhile speaks in short, exclamatory sentences which underscore his possibly deranged state.
As we were focusing on these formal elements, I noticed that there were multiple references to classical mythology and poetry in the play.  Portia, for example, compares herself to "a golden fleece;/Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis strand/And many Jasons come in suit of her"  (1.ii).  Here classical imagery is used by Portia to express discontent with her situation.  At the other end of the play, Lorenzo also uses classical imagery that highlights his removal from the reality of his romantic triste with Jessica.  I therefore came across the idea thta classical imagery is used to develop characters who haven't come to terms with their reality.
If I were to run with this idea for a research paper, I would enjoy seeing what previous scholars had to say about the use of classical allusions in Shakespeare.  I could then see if these elements are used to signify an emotional stagnation, as they do in other contemporary plays like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus or Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy.  Perhaps they are merely a common trope in Elizabethan theater regardless of characterization.  I would have the opportunity to look through other plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries that I have read, linking them back to potential classical sources.  I could even look at film adaptations of the Merchant of Venice, such as the 2004 adaptation starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons to compare these representations of the characters with my analysis.  The potential research project would therefore give me a lot of material to explore in my analysis of Shakepeare's classical references within the Merchant of Venice.


  1. I found this article called "Biblical, Liturgical, and Classical Allusions in The Merchant of Venice." by Mark F Consgrove its in a book called "The merchant of Venice Choice, hazard, and consequence" that you can check out from the library. It talks about the classical allusions as well as the biblical allusions in the play. It might be useful for you.

  2. Sarah's source sounds perfect. This post came about very well out of your Slack discussion and has some good focus. Much has been done about the classical allusions and the general presence of ancient literature across Shakespeare's works, so you'll need to be careful to narrow. I'm not sure that I buy the idea that alluding to the past means you are stuck in it, but I'm not sure how much you were setting out to say that. One way to focus would be to look not so much at the classical content, but the classical style evident in this play or across several.