It is worthwhile to take a close look at the marriage and trial plots in The Merchant of Venice. The antagonists of the respective plots have similar goals; they seek access to power and privilege. However, the types of power they seek is very different. The methods they use of gaining power are also differ. Bassanio succeeds with his intent, but Shylock fails. Focusing on the before mentioned plots, one may draw some conclusions concerning the reasons of success and failure in this play. Let us look at the marriage plot. Already in I,i Bassanio reveals his plans of wooing Portia.
He describes his undertaking as a quest; “her sunny locks/ Hang on her temples like a golden fleece/ Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strond,/ And many Jasons come in quest of her. “(I, i, 169-172). We might notice how he describes Portia’s looks in an almost petrarchan manner. He is describing a single feature of her (her hair), and thereby objectifying her. More importantly, Bassanio’s words tell us that he is aware of the economic gains that he can achieve through the bond of marriage. This makes us ask an essential question: What does Bassanio want to achieve through wooing Portia?
According to Frank Whigham in “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice”, he wants power through an assimilation into the elite. Bassanio has lost ventures before (I, i, 123-135), but now he’s venturing to be free from financial worries. He seeks to rid himself with the fear the Venetians share when it comes to loss of security and privilege through the loss of money (I, i, 31-34). To this we might add that he also seeks love in marriage. Since Bassanio spoke of his undertaking as a quest, it is natural to assume that there is a certain risk involved. So what does Bassanio risk?
Obviously he is risking his friend’s life. When Antonio signs the bond to help Bassanio, there is a certain risk that Antonio might die, how improbable it might seem to them at that point. He is also facing the risk of financial loss, should he fail in his quest. And if he fails in his quest, he is barred from the company of Portia and he is barred from access to the elite. But Bassanio does not fail. So what were the means to his success? Again, according to Whigham, Bassanio succeeds because he is (consciously or subconsciously) aware of the language and outer credentials of style that Portia relates to.
Bassanio shares Portia’s assumptions and views of the world, and is therefore able to choose the right casket by using their shared credentials of style. By denouncing gold and silver Bassanio gains access to gold and silver (i. e. the wealth of Portia). By scorning choices based on style, he uses a certain mode of style to get what he wants. His rhetoric and his goals are not exactly in concord, but he gets what he wants; wealth and access to the elite. If we look at the trial plot, it is quite clear that Shylock also wants power. But he does not want to be included into Christian society, he seeks power over it.
His reasons, although obscure to the Venetians of the play, are not incomprehensible. Antonio has tried to ruin his business (I, iii, 39-40) and in view of the treatment he has been given of the Christians of the play (I, iii, 106-123), it is natural that he might find his position somewhat undeserving and even worthy of revenge. Shylock’s means of getting in power are different than Bassanio’s. Shylock is trying to defeat the system by using the system. He does not want to be included in the Christian society, because he knows that would only restore him hierarchically and thereby render him powerless.
He would again be the underdog. Shylock believes that he only risks the loss of three thousand ducats when he decides to have his revenge, but he ends up losing everything he has, even his religion. In the trial scene, Shylock never tries to hide what he wants. He wants his pound of flesh, and thereby Antonio’s life. One might argue that it is Shylock’s honesty that becomes his downfall. In the end there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he, as an alien, did “seek the life of a citizen” (IV, i, 347), and that he therefore is liable to persecution.
Accordingly, we can claim that the trial plot and the marriage plot both can be seen as trials determining access to power. Shylock fails because he is unable to see the law as an ideological tool created by the elite. He does not realise that the law is not literal and objective, it is created to protect its creators. The law, in this respect, becomes biased and dishonest. Bassanio, in his trial, uses decorum and style in order to get what he wants. He is being dishonest in his rhetoric when it comes to his desires for wealth, but by displaying the proper style, he gets what he wants.