Kenneth Myrick says, “The Merchant of Venice is the earliest of three superb comedies in which Shakespeare has set a generous and clear-sighted woman in sharp contrast to a no less unusual, but markedly unsocial man. From beginning to end, Portia and Shylock—like Rosalind and Jaques in As You Like It and Viola and Malvolio in Twelfth Night—remain poles apart” (Introduction to The Merchant of Venice [New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1965], xxi).
Shylock, the Outsider of Venice, is most precisely fixed within the structure of the play by his confrontation with that other outsider, Portia of Belmont, and she is, in turn, illuminated by the obstinate opposite she faces. Their conflicts and contiguities (for they have those as well) focus the issues of the entire play. Shylock has paid three thousand ducats to feed his revenge, to purchase the death of the man he hates; Portia offers more than thrice that sum to deface his deadly bond, to rescue her dear bought husband’s dearest friend.
Both Portia and Shylock are using money as a means, but to very different ends. Portia uses money as Antonio has used it, to secure the happiness of those around her: her wealth now sustains the prodigal Bassanio, and her house shelters both Shylock’s thrown-away servant and his runaway daughter. Portia’s wealth means an expansion of possibilities, a musical movement through life that may at times catch brief echoes (even in “this muddy vesture of decay”) of that purer music which sounds in the heavens.
Shylock’s Puritan attitudes link him to Jaques and Malvolio (not to mention Angelo in Measure for Measure), and for Shakespeare’s theatre audience mark him more clearly as a villain than his Jewishness does. His puritanical thrift means shutting up the self in a dark house where friendship, festival, love, and music find their way only as intruders, garish masks glimpsed in the streets or discordant noises heard from far away.
But just for a moment before Shylock’s final discomfiture, we are given a chance to see the similarities between the lady and the miser. They are, after all, tied together in several strange ways. Portia has obeyed her father’s will in a manner that Shylock would certainly approve and by means which he has indirectly supplied. His money made her combination of obedience and happiness possible. There is a curious circle here: Antonio’s bond and Shylock’s ducats freed Portia from her bond; now she comes in her turn to release both Antonio and Shylock.
Indeed, in her role as Balthasar she is closer to Shylock than to Antonio. She is an outsider in the society of Venice, an actress playing a new and unfamiliar part. And, more than that, she is an alien—a woman in a world of men, an intruder who has less right to be in the court than Shylock has. This is an aspect of the situation that a twentieth century auditor can easily miss, but surely an Elizabethan would have found the figure of a female judge more outlandish than any masculine intruder.
So, when Portia says, “Then must the Jew be merciful” (4.1.181), she is one alien speaking to another, appealing to their common humanity, pointing to the possible perils that may pierce it, and arguing that all such fragile souls stand in need of compassion. We do not, of course, expect Shylock to penetrate her disguise; even if his own blindness would permit it, the stage convention will not. We hope, however, that he will see through himself. But like Jaques in As You Like It, he responds only to those things which chime with his own unmusical pose. Like Malvolio, he insists on revenge. Balthasar is a wise young judge when he upholds the bond, but Shylock ignores him when he strays from that comfortable text. Instead, Shylock plunges on, to demand the letter of the law, to draw his deeds literally on his own head, and to be forced to accept what he refused to give—a grudging mercy. Even the last act, with Shylock absent, continues the comparisons between the two. Portia forgives and loves Bassanio, aristocratic representative of a Christian patriarchal order that excludes her in much the same way that it shuts out the Jew.