Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)



First Advisor

Louis Leiter

First Committee Member

Lawrence J. Osborne

Second Committee Member

Paul Witherington


Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, is one of the most misunderstood plays in the playwright's canon. Although the play's popularity is evidence by its history of successful production, critics have looked with puzzlement at the drama because Shakespeare combined three tales having no apparent relationship into one play. The story of the man who is willing to give up his life for his friend, the tales of the caskets, and the love story of the Christian for the Jewess do have a common general theme of love. But there is another underlying theme which is significant to the meaning of the play--the theme which examines the importance of worldly wealth. In the Antonia/Bassanio story, wealth is important because it brings Antonio to the point of sacrifice. In the Bassanio/Portia tale, wealth has made the lady Portia desirable yet must have no importance to Bassanio when he chooses the casket. The Lorenzo/Jessica story demonstrates not only disregard for worldly wealth but the apparent squandering of it. There are also problems in the characters of Antonio and Shylock. Antonio's melancholy is difficult to explain, and Shylock has been interpreted in nearly as many ways as there have been actors who have played to part.

All of these difficulties, including that of supposed disunity, are resolved when the play is examined in the atmosphere of its creation. The play historically was born to a nation struggling for material wealth. Its dramatic inheritance was that of the Christian religious tradition brought from the medieval times in the form of the miracle plays. The unifying element of the miracle cycles was the allegory of Christian salvation. And thus it is this same Christian allegory which unties The Merchant of Venice. The Christian allegory also defines in a satisfying way the specific love which each of the seemingly unrelated tales exemplifies. The allegory brings together the apparently dissimilar attitudes toward worldly wealth. I is within the Christian allegory that the roles of Antonio and Shylock, as well as all the minor characters, are precisely determined. It is the purpose of this study to delineate the Christian allegory and thereby identify the dominating and unifying theme of the play.

It is the purpose of this study (1) to show that the play contains much of the symbolic allegory which was prevalent in the language of the Church in medieval times, (2) to demonstrate that the allegorical traditions are present in all parts of the play, and (3) to reveal that the Christian allegory makes all aspects of the drama contribute to the entirety of its effects.





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