This play emphasizes appearances because Bassanio used his appearances to impress not only the people of Venice but also Portia of Belmont. One reason this play accentuates appearances is because Bassanio emphasizes his appearance all through his life. He wants to appear rich to gain a good reputation around Venice. For instance, when Bassanio says, “‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate, / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” (Act I, Scene 1, lines 122-125) he confesses that he uses all his money in his fancy appearance for the obvious reason that he wants everyone to like him.
Another reason that proves that this play emphasizes appearances is that Bassanio uses his appearance to impress Portia who lives in Belmont. He wants Portia to think he is rich and impressive so that she would want to marry him and help him pay off all his debts to Antonio and his other investors. For example when Bassanio says, “…had I but the means / To hold a rival place with one of them, / I have a mind presages me such thrift, / That I should questionless be fortunate.” (Act I, Scene 1, lines 173-176) he tells Antonio that if he had enough money, he would give gifts to Portia and appear to be a good person, therefore causing Portia to want to marry him. Throughout the play, Bassanio works to make himself appear different then what he actually is, placing appearance over reality.
In addition, Shylock, like Bassanio, uses his appearance to deceive everyone into thinking that he is something he is not. A reason why this play emphasizes appearances is because Shylock appeared to be a kind and generous man. For instance when Shylock says, “I would be friends with you and have your love, / Forget the shames that you have stained me with, / Supply your present wants, and take no doit / Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me: / This is kind I offer.” (Act I, Scene 3, lines 135-139) he appears to be friendly and kind by offering the money Bassanio needs, which deceives Antonio and Bassanio into thinking that Shylock really wants to help them. Thus Shylock’s appearance leads Bassanio and Antonio into believing Shylock and taking the loan from him.
Another reason as to why this play emphasizes appearances is because Shylock appears to be interested in the dinner that he is invited to go to by the Christians. Shylock pretends to be friendly to the Christians to find out what they are planning. In fact, when he says, “I am bid forth to supper, Jessica…But wherefore should I go? / I am not bid for love: they flatter me. / But yet I go in hate to feed upon / The prodigal Christian… I am right loath to go: / There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest, / For I did dream of money-bags tonight.” (Act II, Scene 5, lines 11-19) he confirms that he doesn’t want to go to dinner with the Christians but that he will go and pretend he is friendly just to find out what they are planning. In conclusion, Shylock’s actions make it clear that appearance holds a higher place over reality in this play.
Finally, like Bassanio and Shylock, Portia found it necessary to use her appearance to deceive her suitors and the people of Venice. One reason that proves that this play emphasizes appearances is that Portia uses her appearance to lead her suitors into thinking that she is interested in them. She acts politely towards them and even invites the Prince of Morocco for dinner before he chooses. For example when she says, “Yourself, renown prince, then stood as fair / as any comer I have looked on yet / For my affection” (Act II, Scene 1, lines 20-23) her words appear to tell the Prince that he has a good chance of winning her over. What she says appears to be very kind and just thus causing the Prince to believe that she is a kind, just person.
Another reason as to why this play emphasizes appearances is that Portia focused on her physical appearance so that she could be heard by the men of Venice. Portia used her appearance to deceive all the men of Venice into thinking she was a male. For example, when Portia says, “Therefore, prepare thee to cut off the flesh. / Shed thou no blood, nor cut less nor more / But just a pound of flesh: if thou tak’st more or less than a just pound, be it but so much / As makes it light or heavy in the substance, / Or the division of the twentieth part / Of one poor scrumple, nay, if the scale do turn/ But in the estimation of a hair, / Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.” (Act IV, Scene 1, lines 320-328) she acts skillfully like a real civil doctor. Her appearance makes the men of Venice think that she is a male and tricks everyone into treating her like a male. If she didn’t disguise herself like a male, the men of Venice would not take her seriously due to the fact that she was female, thus resulting in Antonio dying. In conclusion because Portia’s appearance was needed to not only choose a husband but to save Antonio’s life as well, the play emphasizes appearance over reality.
The play The Merchant of Venice, like many other plays, emphasizes what things appear to be rather than what things are in reality. Three examples that show that this play emphasizes appearances over reality are Bassanio’s deceptions towards Portia and those of Venice, Shylock’s kind and friendly appearance towards the Christian society, and Portia’s need to appear a certain way to receive what she wants. People should look past these superficial appearances, unlike the characters in this play, and actually look at the reality of the situation.
Appearance and Reality
There are many instances in the play when all is not quite as it seems. We, the audience, are aware of the disguises and deceptions with which some of the characters are involved.
- Lancelot deceives his blind father, pretending that he is not his son.
- Jessica dresses up as a boy in order to elope with Lorenzo.
- Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as Balthazar and his clerk in order to attend the trial.
- Portia and Nerissa then develop the deceit so that they can test their husbands.
It is clear that we should not judge by appearances! Do you think that it is fair to deceive others, even for 'honourable' motives? Are there any characters in the play who, in your opinion, take deception too far?
We could also question the 'appearance' of the Venetians - they call themselves Christians (and so ought to follow the teachings of the New Testament, loving their neighbours), but the reality is that they own slaves and persecute the Jews.
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