The Crisis of Identity in the Merchant of Venice

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The crisis of identity is the foundation of some of the greatest Shakespearean moments. The Merchant of Venice has such a strong character development that it looks more like Shakespeare’s later works, in terms of maturity and character strength. Does the crisis of identity play a significant role in this development?

Shylock After the Trial, in The Mercahnt of Venice.
The crisis of identity is a central element in many of Shakespeare’s plays, and in The Merchant of Venice, all main characters face it. (Image: Sir John Gilbert/Public domain)

The Merchant of Venice is structured like a comedy but has some dark spots and a bitterness that makes it more like Twelfth Night among Shakespeare’s comedies. It was written in 1596–1597, a few years before Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, but it looks as mature as Shakespeare’s later works. The play owes its maturity to the professionally designed character of Shylock.

Shakespeare might not have even noticed what rich a character he was creating, but Shylock exceeds the play in terms of complexity. To understand Shylock, one must first learn how to use this tool to understand Shakespeare’s plays: the crisis of identity.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Questions of Identity

“Who am I?” is a fundamental question in many of Shakespeare’s plays. A bold example is Hamlet, but other plays also use the tool as much. When King Lear cries in dismay, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he is posing the great question of the play. In The Merchant of Venice, the play’s opening scene addresses the crisis of identity.

Shylock and Jessica
The Merchant of Venice is enriched with many characters that look for their identity in different ways. (Image: Maurycy Gottlieb/Public domain)

Antonio’s sadness is a tragic theme, and he enters the play with:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself.

The reason for his sadness is soon revealed: Bassanio, Antonio’s closest friend, is going to marry Portia, and Antonio knows their friendship will change drastically. At the end of the play, Antonio is left lonely.

Learn more about A Midsummer Night’s Dream-comic structure.

Antonio’s Crisis

Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is beyond mere friendship. Some critics see them as lovers and some as close friends of youth. In either case, Antonio is sad that Bassanio’s marriage will end the relationship.

Shakespeare highly values male friendships and puts them to the test in many plays: Hamlet and Horatio, Benedick and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, and Leontes and Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio shows the challenge in his line, “I have much ado to know myself.” The audience should follow the question and try to learn about each character through it.

Learn more about the arc of character in The Merchant of Venice.

Bassanio’s Crisis

Unlike Antonio, Bassanio does not want to know who he is. He wants to know how to become who he wants to be. This is different from tragedy in the sense that tragedy’s characters are unable to change, like Macbeth.

Norwegian actor Kjell Stormoen as The Merchant of Venice at Den Nationale Scene, 1969.
The male friendship in The Merchant of Venice helps the reader figure out Antonio’s question of identity, but Bassanio wants to transform himself and is not concerned with the end of his friendship for marriage. (Image: Eirik Sundvor (1902 – 1992) Municipal Archives of Trondheim from Trondheim, Norway/CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

In the first scene, when Bassanio and Antonio are left alone, Antonio asks him about his plans. Bassanio replies with how broke he is and how he needs money to woo Portia and wed her. He reveals that he has been trying to show himself richer than what he is, and has thus lost a lot of money. He then asks Antonio to lend him money.

He tells Antonio about Portia with:

“In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia …
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth, For the four winds blow in from every coast

Renowned suitors …
And many Jasons come in quest of her. O my Antonio, 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!”

The lines show Bassanio’s values: first, wealth, second, beauty, and last, virtue. The transformation of his character is revealed when he takes part in the lottery of caskets to win Portia’s hand. He goes for the least costly casket, which shows money is not his first value anymore.

He also puts himself forward to be tested when he asks for money to “venture” and try to win Portia. Thus, the crisis of identity is an extremely fundamental question in this play.

Common Questions about The Crisis of Identity

Q: What is the crisis of identity in Shakespeare’s works?

The crisis of identity is a tool used in both comedies and tragedies. It is the question of “Who am I?” that was most evidently presented in Hamlet.

Q: Why is Antonio sad in the play?

Antonio is Bassanio’s close friend, and when he finds out that Bassanio wants to woo and wed Portia, he realizes the marriage will be an end to their friendship. So, he is sad at the beginning of the play, and it somehow contributes to his crisis of identity as well.

Q: How is the crisis of identity represented in Bassanio’s character?

For Bassanio, the crisis of identity is not so much “Who am I?” but “How do I become the person I want to be?” Bassanio is engaged in a great effort to transform himself.

Q: What are the representations of the crisis of identity in The Merchant of Venice?

Almost all main characters face the crisis of identity in The Merchant of Venice. For example, Bassanio tries to be who he wants, and Antonio faces the crisis when Bassanio plans to get married.

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