Love is such a broad word, but we use it to describe so many things. The Merchant of Venice portrays the complexity of love, as it often associates love with the desire for wealth, power, and beauty.
“Pure Love” is different from marriage. When Portia makes her first appearance in the play, she complains, “But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband.” (Act 1, Scene 2, ll. 20,21) We see that she desires to marry someone she has affection for, but she has no choice; her marriage is determined by “chance”. As Bassanio opens the casket and marries Portia, we temporarily forget that marriage doesn’t necessary require love. Portia has long hinted to us, “In terms of choice I am not solely led/ By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes.” (Act 2, Scene 1, ll. 13, 14) Thus, there isn’t “pure love” in marriage.
The relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo is another example of how we must not confuse marriage with love. There is no doubt that Lorenzo and Jessica adore each other, but there are many hints in the play where Lorenzo associates his affection for Jessica with the amount of fortune Jessica takes from her father. “She hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnish’d with, What page’s suit she hath in readiness.” (Act 2, Scene 5, ll. 29-32) Jessica has “hath prov’d herself” by bringing her dowry and converting to a Christian, thus she is “wise, fair, and true,” and only then can she be “placed” in Lorenzo’s “constant soul.” (Act 2, Scene 6, ll. 53-58)
Jessica’s love towards Lorenzo is not pure love either. As she talks about the “tediousness” of her father and her house, she immediately feels guilty, but quickly diminishes this guilt by thinking about Lorenzo. “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be asham’d to be my father’s child! / But though I am a daughter to his Blood / I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife.” (Act 2, Scene 3, ll. 15-20) If she doesn’t take her own dowry and marry Lorenzo, she will likely marry someone Shylock choses. Then again, we see how marriage doesn’t necessarily require love, and especially “pure and true love.”
In The Merchant of Venice, marriage is portrayed as the exchange of power. And love cannot survive without it. Portia willingly gives Bassanio her “powers”; “yet for you / I would be trebled twenty times myself, / A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times / More rich, that only to stand high in your account / I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, / Exceed account.” (Act 3, Scene 2, ll. 152-157) This is only possible because Bassanio had chosen the right casket, but Portia’s affection for him is a prominent reason; before Bassanio chooses the caskets, she already admits that “One half of me is yours, the other half yours— / Mine one, I would say: but if mine then yours, / And so all yours.” (Act 3 Scene 2, ll.16-18) If her husband is chosen by “fortune,” she might as well marry someone she likes. But if she was never a noble birth, Bassanio and the other suitors will never pursue her.
The love between Antonio and Bassanio is more ambiguous as it doesn’t perfectly fall into the category of either romantic love or friendship. What Antonio has done for Bassanio is incredible considering that they are known just as “kinsmen,” or friends; but Antonio’s affection for Bassanio is adulterated with a confusion about his sexual orientation, and anti-Semitism, as he prevents Bassanio from committing usury. We can interpret Antonio’s willingness to borrow Bassanio such a large sum of money as his affection towards Bassanio. But we can also see it as Antonio’s only way of expressing a type of love that is not commonly accepted at the time, for a Christian. Other than lending Bassanio large sums of money, there are limited options towards how he can express his affection. From Shylock’s famous speech, we know that Antonio has “hindered” him “half a million” (Act 3, Scene 1, ll. 48, 49) by preventing his friends from committing usury, “and it is very likely that he wants to keep Bassanio out of it too.
Love will always be impure and untrue. Pure love, if it exists, cannot possibly survive on this world without money or power. But is “contaminated love” not love? Shakespeare depicts these complex feelings through the characters in the play. And I think it is very accurate to how humans actually behave. But it also means I can never really find answers to these questions about The Merchant of Venice. It must take a lifetime to completely understand it.