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The Merchant of Venice: Family Relationships

By Stephanie Chidester
From Midsummer Magazine, 2000


The character of Shylock is so large and the themes of prejudice and justice and mercy so strong in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that secondary themes and characters are often overwhelmed. The play is much more than a study of the struggles between Christian and Jew; it is a rich tapestry threaded with love and self-sacrifice, hatred and revenge, friendship and marriage, divided loyalties, and bonds legal, financial and emotional. One subtle but interesting pattern in this tapestry that is sometimes overlooked is Shakespeare’s examination of families and the relationships between father and child.

Shakespeare serves up three parent-child relationships in the play—two father-daughter pairings and one comic father-son. Portia’s relationship with her father, though not perfect, was probably the most healthy of the three, even though she presently resents her father’s method of securing her happiness. Portia’s father constructed his will to protect her from fortune hunters and to ensure that she married a man who would value everything Portia is and not merely her money and beauty; however, it is also possible to see in his actions a lack of faith in Portia’s good sense—he doesn’t trust her to make a wise choice on her own: “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none?” (The Signet Classic Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, Kenneth Myrick, Ed. [New York: Signet, 1965], 1.2.23–26).

Portia is obedient and loyal to her father even after his death, though, undeniably, she feels frustration and resentment, which she vents by insulting her suitors when they are out of earshot. Nevertheless, she honors her father’s wishes even when the quality of her suitors tempts her to use sabotage. When faced with “the young German, the duke of Saxony’s nephew” as a marital prospect, Portia asks Nerissa: “For fear of the worst, I pray thee set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket, for if the devil be within and that temptation without, I know he will choose it” (1.2.94–97). Fortunately, Portia is not put to the test, since this troublesome suitor leaves without venturing a guess at the caskets, and whenever Portia considers rebellion (as she does when she says, “And the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall make shift to go without him” [1.2.88–90] and “I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge” [1.2.97–98]), Nerissa is there to remind her of her duty: “If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father’s will if you should refuse to accept him” (1.2.91–93). Portia is later strongly tempted to cast a few hints in Bassanio’s direction about the correct casket, but she refuses to dishonor herself and disobey her father even though she risks losing the only suitor she can stand. Verbalizing her faith in her father’s wisdom, she tells Bassanio, “If you do love me, you will find me out” (3.2.41).

Jessica, in contrast, is the least loyal of the children in the play, meeting secretly with Lorenzo and allowing him to court her, lying to her father, abandoning him, and stealing from him; she’s hardly the docile, obedient daughter that Shylock takes her for. Although she feels some pangs of guilt (“Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father’s child! / But though I am a daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners” [2.3.16–19]), Jessica rejects her father, his way of life, and his religion—though not, interestingly, his wealth, a great deal of which she takes along with her.

Jessica’s behavior is not altogether surprising when one considers Shylock’s treatment of her. Shylock shows his daughter little affection or kindness—she is his flesh and blood and therefore an extension of himself, not a person in her own right. Days after she has run away, he exclaims in disbelief, “My own flesh and blood to rebel!” (3.1.32). In her first scene, Jessica laments, “Our house is hell” (2.3.2), and Launcelot’s descriptions as well as Shylock’s actions seem to bear this out. Shylock, stingy and puritanical, keeps Jessica locked up and attempts to isolate her from the world, but he doesn’t think to distrust her any more than he would distrust his ducats: “Hear you me, Jessica: / Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum / And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, / Clamber not you up to the casements then, / Nor thrust your head into the public street / To gaze upon Christian fools with varnished faces; / . . . Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (2.5. 28–36). He assumes he has her obedience and doesn’t give it a second thought, being much too busy contemplating his money (“I did dream of moneybags tonight” [2.5.18]) and his revenge (“I’ll go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian” [2.5.14–15]). “There are my keys,” he says to Jessica, “Look to my house” (2.5.12, 16).

When Shylock discovers that Jessica has fled, it becomes clear that he is just as upset that his valuables have disappeared with her. “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter ! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! / Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! / A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, / Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter! / And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones, / Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl! / She hath the stones with her, and the ducats!” (2.8.15–22). And it is equally apparent which of the two he values more: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” (3.1.83–85).

The relationship between Launcelot Gobbo and his father is neither as tempestuous as that of Jessica and Shylock nor as caring as that of Portia and her father. Launcelot shows a lack of respect for his father when he jests, “Well, my conscience . . . says very wisely to me, ‘My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man’s son’—or rather an honest woman’s son, for indeed my father did something smack, something grow to, he had a kind of taste” (2.2.13–18). In addition, Launcelot, unlike Portia, has very little faith in his father’s wisdom, perhaps with some justification—Old Gobbo quite literally doesn’t know his son. Not only does he fail to recognize Launcelot when he meets him on the street (he is, after all, nearly blind), but he also fails to recognize his son’s voice and personality. The only thing of which Old Gobbo is certain about his son is his social status—he is no “Master Launcelot” but plain Launcelot, a servant, and Old Gobbo is not to be fooled on that count.

However, Launcelot is unnecessarily cruel, teasing his father by referring to himself in the third person as “Master Launcelot” and then telling his father that “Master Launcelot . . . is indeed deceased, or as you would say in plain terms, gone to heaven” (2.2.60–65). Old Gobbo, on the other hand, seems fond of his son, even if he doesn’t have the sense to recognize him: When he thinks Launcelot is dead, he says, “The boy was the very staff of my age, my very prop” (2.2.66–67), and when Launcelot makes the request, Old Gobbo very obligingly assists him in acquiring a new position away from Shylock.

The three family relationships in The Merchant of Venice have remarkable similarities, yet they vary widely in success. Portia’s father, in his way, is just as controlling as Shylock; after all, he insists on choosing his daughter’s mate, even from the grave. Yet Portia, one of the strongest-minded individuals in the play, respects his wishes while Jessica betrays and abandons her father. Old Gobbo, though affectionate, is an adequate parent at best, because—like Shylock—he does not truly know or understand his offspring.

Shylock, the least successful parent, combines the other two fathers’ worst characteristics without any of their redeeming ones—he is a domineering yet oblivious father who fails to show his daughter the love she needs. The message that emerges from these strands of The Merchant of Venice’s tapestry is that parental control is best paired with loving concern and that a good parent not only loves and cares for his child but also knows and understands him or her; ideally, the bond between parent and child should consist of more than duty, more than love, though both are important; it should also include a healthy measure of wisdom and understanding.

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