One of this play's themes is the pathological effect of inherited
hate and prejudice on the body of society. As crisis generates mutual assistance and dependence so
affluence breeds contempt and segregation.
Venice, of the play's setting, is a thriving trade city whose prosperity buys leisure and luxury for its merchant class. This idleness is attended by the inevitable exclusiveness, hypocrisy and moral deterioration of an affluent society whose values are determined by the gold standard:
"All that glisters is not gold,So reads the inscription inside the gold casket, one of three of which Portia's suitors must choose to determine whom she will marry: as prescribed in her dead father's will. The gold one contains a death's head, the silver one, a picture of an idiot and the lead one a picture of Portia signifying love and attainment.
The allusion is that the caskets are one thing on the outside and something else on the inside, like the characters of the play.
The print expresses this duality in the sphere surrounding Shylock's head: light on the inside, dark on the outside. Antonio, the merchant, contemptuously remarks about his enemy Shylock:
"...a villain with a smiling cheek!By pointing one finger at Shylock, he aims three at himself, for they are reflections of each other, as Portia inquires in the court scene:
"Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?"One earns profit from trade, the other from finance. The oval thus becomes a mirror of this reflection.
When Shylock's daughter Jessica elopes in the night with her lover, she gives him a casket of gold ducats stolen from her father. It is seen in the lower left in front of the skull.
The merchant hates the money-lender, not for his profession but because he is a Jew. He rationalizes his hatred with self-righteousness. Yet in his time of need he appeals to the Jew for help and is reminded of his past abuses. Shylock says:
"Signior Antonio, many a time and oftAnd Antonio, put to the defense, churls in anger
"I am as like to call thee so again,And insists that the loan be made not on terms of friendship but of enmity. The better part of Shylock prevails. He replies:
"I would be friends with thee and have your love,The print shows him thus: offering love in the casket of lead, as a plea for acceptance into the circle of brotherhood. The spiritual gold is suggested in the color of his face and hand.
At the conclusion of his victorious trial, Antonio demands that Shylock become a Christian, as though by altering the outside of his hate he can abate his inner fears.
The continued indignities, rejections and betrayals more deeply engrave the 'badge of sufferance' and Shylock is ultimately defeated by frustration.