The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's best-known plays, written at an uncertain date between 1594 and 1597. It is a comedy ("comedy" had a very different meaning at the time; see Shakespearean comedies) and is best known for its portrayal of the Jew Shylock, which has raised questions of anti-semitism. Shylock is a tormented character but is also a tormenter, so whether he is to be viewed with disdain or sympathy is up to the reader.
Shakespeare puts one of his most eloquent speeches into the mouth of this "villain":
In his essay "Brothers and Others", published in The Dyer's Hand, W.H. Auden describes Antonio as "a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex." Antonio's feelings for Bassanio are likened to a couplet from Shakespeare's Sonnets: "But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,/Mine be thy love, and my love's use their treasure." Antonio, says Auden, embodies the words on Portia's leaden casket: "Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath." Antonio has taken this potentially fatal turn because he despairs, not only over the loss of Bassanio in marriage, but also because Bassanio cannot requite what Antonio feels for him. Antonio's frustrated devotion is a form of idolatry: the right to live is yielded for the sake of the loved one. There is one other such idolator in the play: Shylock himself. "Shylock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the sake of destroying the enemy he hated; and Antonio, however unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure the happiness of the man he loved." Both Antonio and Shylock, agreeing to put Antonio's life at a forfeit, stand outside the normal bounds of society. There was, states Auden, a traditional "association of sodomy with usury" with which Shakespeare was likely familiar. (Auden sees the theme of usury in the play as a comment on human relations in a mercantile society.)
Similarly, some readers interpret the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio to be paederastic.citation needed Contemporary historians say that the practice experienced a revival in the city states during the Italian Renaissance as ancient Greek documents idealizing such relationships were translated and available to commoners for the first time in nearly one thousand years.citation needed
Portia and Bassanio marry, with the proviso that he will never give up her ring. The ring is a symbol of marital fidelity. The Elizabethans were obsessed with wifely fidelity, and a whole subgenre of jokes were devoted to the subject.citation needed An Elizabethan audience may have seen the significance of Bassanio giving Portia's "ring" back to her as an emblem of his potential for infidelity.