The word "prodigal" appears more often in The Merchant of Venice than in any other play of Shakespeare's, yet the relevance to the play of the parable of the Prodigal Son has excited little critical attention.(1) Not only is Bassanio called "prodigal" by himself and Shylock, but Shylock also calls Antonio "a prodigal," and Gratiano alludes to the parable of the Prodigal Son just before Lorenzo elopes with Jessica. Bassanio and Antonio enact elements of the story of the Prodigal Son at a serious level, while Launcelot Gobbo and his father parody the same story. Jessica also rebels against paternal control, and Portia expresses her desire to do so, though she insists that she will never violate the conditions of her father's will.(2) Instead, she uses the ring plot to create a scenario of disobedience, sin, repentance, and forgiveness that exorcizes the threat of her previous independent behavior and embodies the New Testament ideal of love, in contrast to the unforgiving attitude of Shylock toward his daughter.
"Prodigal" has three key meanings in the context of The Merchant of Venice. It can refer to extravagant expenditure, lavish generosity, or the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), whose reckless defiance of paternal control led to sin, ruin, repentance, and ultimate forgiveness. In the parable, the younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, leaves home, spends all of his money on harlots and riotous living, and is reduced to becoming a famished swineherd. He then returns home in repentance to ask to become one of his father's servants, but is received gladly by his father, who gives him the best robe, a ring, and shoes, and feasts him on a fat calf. The elder brother begrudges his father's celebration, pointing out that he has never been similarly rewarded for being virtuous and obedient, but his father tells him that it is appropriate to rejoice, "for this thy brother was dead, and is alive againe: and he was lost, but he is found" (Luke 15: 32, Geneva Bible).
The paradox of the Prodigal Son - that the sin is a necessary prelude to the forgiveness - echoes the theme of the "fortunate fall."(3) The parable presents generosity and mercy as the central attributes of Christianity, and it rejects the elder brother's narrow focus on desert and obedience to his father's commandments. Allegorically, in the parable the elder brother is identified with the Jews and the laws of the Old Testament, the younger brother with the Christians, and the father with the merciful God of the New Testament. The parable thus brings together several themes that are important in The Merchant of Venice: the triumph of mercy over justice, as portrayed in the trial scene; the rewarding of humility over presumed desert, as exemplified in the casket scene; and the forgiveness of penitents, as seen in the ring plot and in the subplots concerning Launcelot and his father, and Lorenzo and Jessica.
The popularity of the Prodigal Son story in Renaissance literature has been attributed to several sources. Richard Helgerson suggests that stories of prodigals embodied the ongoing conflict between the two Renaissance traditions of "civic humanism and courtly romance," in which "Humanism represented paternal expectation, and romance, rebellious desire" (41). Alan R. Young attributes the popularity of the theme in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century drama to its flexibility for exploring theological issues and "such special contemporary concerns as education, the proper use of wealth, and the responsibilities of a prince" (52-3). Young includes Shakespeare's Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 (which were written around the same time as The Merchant of Venice) among the plays that use the Prodigal Son motif.
Marilyn Williamson connects the popularity in the 1590's of romantic comedies about penniless young men who marry heiresses (such as Bassanio and Orlando) to the dearth of opportunities for social advancement among educated but impoverished young men, which encouraged fantasies of upward mobility through marriage to a wealthy woman (14). …