Thursday, 1 December 2016

Essay 3: Merchant of Venice: Deceptive Appearances

All those who might have read or studied "Merchant of Venice", (one of Shakepeare's many renowned plays) would know that deceptive appearances is one of the central themes of this play. Merchant of Venice was also my favourite text from the ones we did as a part of our IGCSE syllabus. Shakespeare's craftsmanship with words is one that is truly remarkable and inimitable. 

Merchant of Venice: Deceptive Appearances

The theme of deceptive appearances is one of the central themes in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice and is prevalent throughout the various intertwined plots. It is also reflected in the language, via the employment of puns, malapropisms double entendre and other literary devices.

This theme is significant in the plot of the caskets, wherein their outwardly appearance is deliberately designed in a manner that tests Portia’s suitors. The first suitor, Morocco, falls prey to the golden casket that claims, “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”. He interprets this in its literal sense, perceiving the answer to be Portia. However, his failure to look beyond the surface misguides him, and he picks the wrong casket. Shakespeare imparts a very meaningful and philosophical message here, proving to the audience how “all that glisters is not gold”. In a deeper sense this reflects the perception of society, wherein superficial and materialistic aspects such as wealth, beauty and lust shape our judgment and we remain blind to the deeper truth and reality.

The prince of Arragon still chooses to show some more depth in his perception, unwilling to be one from the “fool multitude who choose by show”. However he is stumped upon learning that he too, “chose (choose) amiss” Ultimately, Bassanio picks up the lead casket – the least appealing and reassuring of all, for it reads, “who chooseth me shall give and hazard all he hath
. However, he chooses to look beneath the veneer, and delves into the deeper meaning of what the casket says. The casket is made of a very humble metal and seems to symbolize inner beauty and modesty rather than a shallow idea pertaining solely to outer appearances. Hence, one who chooses the lead casket, choosing “not by the view/chance(s) as fair and choose(s) as true”.  The caskets signify the lesion of choosing by appearances.

Furthermore, Shylock puts on a fa├žade in order to trick Antonio into signing the bond. Although he insists the clause about the pound of flesh is only in “merry sport”, truly, he sees it as an opportunity to “feed fat the ancient grudge” he bears Antonio with. Antonio however, successfully sees beneath Shylock’s contrived kindness, referring his show as “a villain with a smiling cheek/a goodly apple rotten at heart”. Nonetheless, Antonio too is a man of double standards. Although he is always willing to help his friends, and makes them believe that a “kinder gentlemen treads not the earth”, it appears immensely hypocritical, given his hostility and extreme anti Semitic treatment of Shylock, calling him names like “cut throat dog”, “misbeliever” and “bloody creditor”. Despite this, he approaches Shylock for borrowing money, and defiantly asserts he is “as like to call thee so again”, illuminating his capacity for spite and maliciousness.
Moreover, Jessica adorns the disguise of a male “torchbearer”, eloping with Lorenzo. She deceives her father into believing that she is an obedient, responsible and considerate daughter, but in truth, she feels her ‘house is hell’, and on escaping, she squanders his name, and plunders his most valued possessions. Portia and Nerissa also adorn the disguise of men in order to fight for Antonio in court. This is interconnected with the plot of the rings, where both Portia and Nerissa deceive their husbands to have some fun.
Bassanio is also representative of the theme of deceptive appearance too, for he has “disabled his estate/by something showing of a more swelling port”. It seems to be Bassanio’s habit to expend in opulent goods of ostentatious nature, only to show something that he is not, even if it means spending beyond his means. Also, his courtship of Portia may not be as genuine as it appears to be, for although she is “fairer than that word of wondrous virtues”, Bassanio is also attracted to the fact that she is “richly left”.

The theme of deceptive appearances is also made visible in the law of Venice itself. Even in this case, Shylock is subjected to ill fate, for he “craves the law” without having understood it fully. He is misguided in his judgement, believing he can finally take revenge from Antonio, however, he forgets to read the finer print in his eagerness to emerge victorious. Hence, at the last minute, the tables turn and he is a victim of the same law that he thought would finally give him justice.

Shakespeare’s clever use of puns and other literary devices allude to the theme of deception in a subtle manner. Malapropisms are a common feature of Lancelot and Gobbo’s slapstick comedy, and highlight their illiteracy. Also, in the courtroom, Gratiano tells Shylock to sharpen his knife “not on they sole, but thy sole”, where Shakespeare employs a pun to highlight the double meaning in his words. He also employs metaphor to delineate how “ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea”, by virtue of which he reveals when one sees beyond the appealing surface, the outcome could be the exact opposite.

Shakespeare uses this as an opportunity to comment upon society at large. Often, one gets carried away by what is seen on the surface. However, more often that not, upon obtaining a more holistic understanding and experience, we have a more well-rounded and informed idea of the same, which may change our perspective and perception. Moreover, beauty is fickle in nature; hence, once it begins to wear off, our infatuation with the person or object subsides. However, if we learn to appreciate someone or something for who/what they are at their core, and for their true values, we never stop admiring them.


In conclusion, Shakespeare’s inclusion of the recurrent theme of appearances versus reality in the various sub-plots of his play, along with the employment of literary devices that establish the same implicitly, he is better able to develop the theme in a cohesive manner. He reiterates his point multiple times throughout the play, using a myriad of techniques, thus ensuring that his message is communicated efficaciously to the audience and provokes them to reconsider their perception of things.

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