I actively dislike The Merchant of Venice. That it provokes in me such a strong reaction is a testament to Shakespeare’s brilliance as a playwright.
Thing is, I find the characters repulsive and the way they behave indefensible. Antonio is a self-important racist so hardened that slurs and derogatory treatment of others are second nature. Shylock is a bitter, grasping zealot who drives away his daughter and would publicly torture a man to death. Bassanio and Lorenzo are ignorant gold-diggers. Gratiano is a party-hearty bully. Jessica is a thieving spendthrift. Portia is a heartless, hypocritical, selfish deceiver who breaks the law to serve her own ends, with Nerissa as her eager accomplice.
Now, by “hero” I don’t mean “title character.” I’m pretty sure Shakespeare meant the titular merchant to be Antonio; he’s the main character, the one at greatest risk. Story-wise, Bassanio and Shylock are merely the means to place Antonio in danger and Portia the means to save him.
At the same time, we’re all creative enough to fight our corners for any of the characters. I might place my stake on Portia as being worthiest of the title, because she sells the biggest bill: the lives of three men, Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio, with a little of Gratiano and Nerissa and Lorenzo and Jessica thrown in for good measure, all while branding herself as “good.”
But that doesn’t make her a hero in my book.
However, it finally occurred to me that there is one character in The Merchant of Venice I quite like. It’s Launcelot Gobbo’s father, Old Gobbo.
Old Gobbo’s story mirrors Antonio’s. Like Antonio, he has a deep love for a dependent who needs his help to reach a better place in life. Unlike Antonio, he’s old, poor, and blind. But Old Gobbo manages to help his son attain his goal through heartfelt, direct action – the dish of doves, by the way, unlike Antonio’s cash, is just one element of his plan – all without bringing disaster on his head. His success is singularly untainted.
Furthermore, Old Gobbo doesn’t even mention the trick his son plays on him. Instead, he’s full of a father’s love, just happy to be with his son and happy to be helpful.
In all the ways that really matter, I think Old Gobbo is the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.