When William Shakespeare wrote ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 1596, was he simply reflecting the anti-Semitic feelings of his era; or was he trying to show his audience the immorality of anti-Semitism in Elizabethan society? Certainly, the response to such a controversial play is now disputable, but when ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was first in the public’s eye in the late 16th century, it is possible that it was accepted as just a regular, comical play; given that the Christian citizens of England collectively disliked the Jewish.
They were not liked and had been banned from living in England since 1290 – although some still did, in the guise of Christians. Due to this, the Christians had little knowledge about the faith or principles of Jews. Hence the play being set in Venice, where Jews were allowed to live in Ghettos but restricted from mixing with Christians. Shakespeare has given the character, Shylock, stereotypical traits, such as the beard and the ‘Jewish gaberdine’. These noticeable features would have prompted the Elizabethan audience to instantly assume that Shylock was the typical Jewish villain whom they all loved to hate.
Stereotypical Jews at that time were seen as greedy, evil and conspiratorial. This view is backed up when Shylock tells his daughter, Jessica, ‘I did dream of money-bags tonight. ‘ This instigates that Shylock is the typical Jew, who is money obsessed, and more concerned about his money than he is about his own daughter. It seems to me that the only thing that is more important to Shylock is the ‘pound of man’s flesh’, which he has the right to demand from Antonio as a forfeit if the merchant does not come up with the ‘three thousand ducats’ he is owed.
In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Jews were not tolerated at all. Many of the Christians’ views are backed up in this play. Shakespeare uses phrases suggesting Jews were inhuman. Antonio implies this by saying ‘As seek to soften that – than which what’s harder? – His Jewish heart. ‘ This indicates that Antonio believes there is a difference between a Jew’s heart and a Christian one, (which is pure and good), therefore Shylock is abnormal, and someone who has bad intentions. For example, Satan. Shylock is likened to a devil many times during the play.
Surprisingly, it is the people who know him best who insinuate this. Lancelot, his servant, uses powerful imagery – ‘the Jew my master, who – God bless the mark! – is a kind of devil’. This would prove to the audience that the Jew was pure evil. Lancelot then adds to this, strengthening his argument, seeming more adamant, by observing that Shylock is ‘the very devil incarnation’. This could be perceived in two ways: As Lancelot is called ‘the clown,’ was Shakespeare implying that even the people of the lowest status can see the negativity in Jews?
Or maybe suggesting that as the character saying this was the comic figure of the play, the anti-Semitism was all utter madness? Jessica, states ‘Our house is hell’, therefore Shylock must be the devil to want to live there. This is supported when we find out that his house means a lot to him. He keeps the Christian world out, and so it is his only sanctuary, a place where he can be Jewish without being disturbed. ‘Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter // My sober house. ‘ To the audience of any era, this would have been offensive; and so the Elizabethans would not have taken kindly to such an insult.
However, Shakespeare could have written this to create the impression that Shylock is upset and alone: His daughter renounces him to elope with a loathed Christian and his servant leaves to work for Bassanio. It seems like all the people he trusted left him (and his faith) to be in the presence of Christians. Possibly Shakespeare was hoping this would stir some sympathy in the audience, and they would finally grasp the idea that Jews were not as evil as previously thought. Shylock cites the bible many times in the play; he refers to bible stories to back up his opinions.
When he is striking up a deal between himself and Antonio, he uses a scripture from Genesis 30 to justify why he is charging Antonio interest. His justification is: ‘This was a way to thrive, and he was blest; // And thrift is blessing if men steal it not. ‘ This could be seen as being a very far-fetched reason, which would mean that Shylock is narrow minded, who would provide any reason to con a bit more money out of Antonio. Antonio himself says that ‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose’, insinuating that Shylock is greedy.
But perhaps this is wrong, and Shakespeare was implying that Shylock was instead trying to reason with Antonio over mutual ground; the bible stories were one thing they both recognised and appreciated. Shylock seems to be the only character who sticks to his agreements. Bassanio does not keep his promise to Portia – he gives up the ring she gave him, the one she said ‘Which when you part from, lose, or give away, // Let it presage the ruin of your love’. Antonio also does not stick to his agreement between Shylock and himself – he does not give up ‘a pound of flesh’, which he promised to do if he could not pay the price of his loan.
In Shakespeare’s time, seeing ‘the Jew’ making an effort to keep his promise would have been shocking and out of the ordinary, but we find that Shylock does all he can to get what he rightfully deserves: ‘I will have the heart of him if he forfeit’. He shows how determined he is to keep his promise of gaining Antonio’s flesh, by using repetition: ‘I’ll have my bond’, he repeats as Antonio tries to rationalise with him. At this stage there is a change in roles for the two leading characters. Shylock suddenly has the upper hand, and Antonio is grovelling to his enemy for his life.
He appeals to the Jew, calling him ‘good Shylock. (Is this arrogance on the part of the ‘good’ Christian? ) This suggests a dramatic change the play, because before this, Shylock is only known as ‘the Jew’, or ‘the devil’; therefore it appears that Shylock has the upper hand for once. So why did Shakespeare do this? It could have been to challenge the audience about their idea of stereotypes. In the 17th century this would have been a very controversial and unexpected thing to do. My view is that the playwright wanted to show the audience how dangerous things could become if they kept on criticising and treating the Jews inadequately.
It would cause the Jews to want to seek revenge, and then the Christians would be at the mercy of the Jews with the ‘currish spirit’ that they so dislike. Shylock’s speech in Act three, scene one proves that the Jews will want revenge for their mistreatment. ‘Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction’ In my opinion, a speech with such contentious connotations and such controversial questions should be directed at the anti-Semitic audience, and I believe that Shakespeare’s intention was to do just that. Shylock again uses repetition to reinforce his point.
He answers his questions with the word ‘Revenge’. His speech is fuelled by the abuse and cruelty he has suffered over the years, from his enemies, and even his daughter’s disappearance would have had a dramatic effect on him. ‘I had a daughter’. It is a key turning point in the play: It is when Shylock decides to defend himself, and finally fight back against those who humiliated him and mocked his faith. Therefore when Shylock is made to convert to Christianity at the end of the play, the audience would feel sympathy for the man who lost everything that mattered to him.
On the other hand, Shakespeare could have ended it as an anti-Semite – to show that good (Christianity) always triumphs over evil (Judaism). It could be argued that Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, or that the playwright thoroughly disliked anti-Semitism. We do not know. But my opinion is that Shakespeare identified and compared himself with his creation of ‘the Jew’. As it is thought that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic (in a Protestant England), he would have known what it was like to have a different faith, and wished to show his point of view through a play.
‘What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong? Shylock explained as he fought his corner. However, it is also likely that Shakespeare was a typical Elizabethan anti-Semite who hated all Jews; therefore made Shylock a dislikeable character. Shylock speaks of Antonio: ‘I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it. ‘ Personally, I believe that Shakespeare wanted to show the harsh reality of anti-Semitism to his audience, and he thought that through the eyes of a Jew was the best way to do it. The play shows definite anti-Semitism in its characters, but in my opinion, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is not anti-Semitic.