To tackle this question we must first establish a definition of ‘racist’. If we are arguing whether the play is racist simply as an entity, then by our 21st century standards the answer is certainly yes. For example, Portia discriminates against the Prince of Morocco solely for his skin colour, and Shylock is bullied merely for being Jewish. Intolerance of Jews was a fact of 16th Century life, even in Venice, which was the most powerful and liberal city-state in Europe, therefore an Elizabethan audience would not have deemed or condemned the play as racist because racism was not an established issue.
If we are arguing whether the play is racist by the intentions with which it was created, whether or not the play is racist is unclear. Therefore, in order to discuss the statement we must address it in the latter way. Although ‘The Merchant of Venice’ shows many forms of prejudice and discrimination this could have been shown for many reasons. Shakespeare could have wanted just to entertain the Christian audience’s stereotypical views; however he could have wanted to challenge the audience’s unreasonable and unfair behaviour.
The following paragraphs will explore both sides of the argument, although I myself believe the play was written with essentially anti-racist intentions. During ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare uses Shylock as one of the main sources of amusement. Shylock is a stereotypical Jew, so to the Elizabethan audience he was not only an object to mock, but a comical caricature. Shylock is often seen as a miserly, sadistic, distasteful old man. In Shakespeare’s frequently evil representation of Shylock, he is leading us to believe that Shylock is a villainous character and playing along with the current racist stereotypes.
This would insinuate the play is racist, but without presenting racism in its very worst form it would have been harder for Shakespeare to present a case against it. Perhaps Shakespeare is just setting the scene for the exposition of his true agenda, most lucid in Shylock’s famous speech. Also, without mocking Shylock at least a little, nobody would have taken the play seriously. I think Shakespeare knew that temporarily going against his beliefs would help his cause in the long run. Shylock’s cruel nature is partially shown by his sick deal with Antonio.
When we first meet Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio are asking him for the loan of three thousand ducats. Here Shylock is clearly plotting his revenge on Antonio so he comes across as a sly and fairly evil man, ‘Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me. ‘ he demands as the penance for Antonio’s failure to pay him back. Shylock is even excited by the news of Antonio’s misfortune and at the prospect of his bond being fulfilled, saying ‘what? Ill luck, ill luck? ‘ in a hopeful manner.
In the play most of the characters that know Shylock view him as ‘A creature that did bear the shape of man so keen and greedy to confound a man. ‘ Shylock comes across as a villain in Act 4 during the court scene when his evil, vengeful motives are clearer than ever and he would rather take someone’s life than make a financial profit. He is very enthusiastic in making sure Antonio’s pound of flesh is ‘his breast,’ ‘Nearest his heart. ‘ Even when everyone expects him to do the decent thing and be merciful, Shylock is adamant, ‘I will have my bond.
The scene also shows other people’s opinions of Shylock, when the Duke calls Shylock ‘an inhuman wretch, uncapable of pity, void and empty. ‘ This really shows how Shylock is thought of, and that even the most powerful man in Venice thinks of him as a miserly old man. Another key point needed to assess the character of Shylock is the feelings of Jessica. In the play we are shown that even Shylock’s daughter dislikes him so much that she believes ‘our house is hell,’ and that ‘I shall be saved by my husband’ i. e. she would become Christian.
Even his family are keen to get away from him and his warped beliefs. The end of the play is left in the manner it began – with everyone but Shylock happy. This compounds Shylock’s character as a villain and points toward the play as racist, although I personally believe this was the only acceptable way for Shakespeare to leave the play, or risk its success. Alternatively, I think it can be seen as the nail in the coffin of Shakespeare’s argument – racism is an issue of an awful, invincible nature and at this rate, it will not be beaten.
On the other hand, through Shylock, Shakespeare shows how the Jews would have been treated at the time and in turn how they felt about this. He can be seen as a sympathetic character – a victim of society who is bitter rather than evil. Throughout the play he is ill-treated simply because of his race. Many of the characters are shown to have very harsh opinions of him. ‘This is the fool. ‘, ‘An inhuman wretch. ‘ is said of Shylock when Antonio goes to him for money. Shylock wonders why he should help someone who has treated him so badly, ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.
‘I hate him for he is Christian. ‘ says Shylock of Antonio, providing the apparent antagonist’s side of the argument, which a purely racist play would not have done. Although such anti-racist signs are plain in the play, an Elizabethan audience at the time would have simply laughed at Shylock’s losses. In this way, I believe Shakespeare very cleverly managed to create a play that is almost entirely two-sided and successful both ways. At the end Act 4, and the last time we see him, we may feel sympathy towards Shylock, being left with nothing. In the scene Shylock has been humiliated.
Shylock was attempting to take the life of a Christian, and so he left knowing he must give Antonio half of his wealth, and the state of Venice the other half. In addition Antonio gets his revenge by insisting that Shylock should leave his wealth to the man his daughter ran away with, and must convert to Christianity. This request, however, would have been seen as a good deed and the ultimate mercy rather than the ultimate punishment – ‘It is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. ‘ is said of it.
This, I believe, is the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s craft of having made a play with double-sided morals. A key point needed to be looked at when deciding on the nature of the play as anti-racist is Shylocks speech. I think Shakespeare uses it to try and educate the audience to their prejudiced beliefs at the time. Shakespeare does this by using many persuasive language techniques, such as repetition, lists, rhetorical questions and using very emotive and personal language throughout, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? In the speech Shylock is explaining why he feels bitter towards Antonio, ‘he has laughed at my losses, mocked my gains, scorned my nation. ‘
He proves that all people are the same by drawing out comparisons between Jews and Christians such as that they are ‘Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons. ‘ Shylock claims that all his suffering and anger is produced by the Christians themselves. He blames his villainy on them, arguing that it is simply imitation of their own prejudice and cruelty -‘If a Jew wrong a Christian what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why revenge. ‘ Although most of an Elizabethan audience would have been incensed by Shylock’s admonition, it is a very powerful argument Shylock, and Shakespeare pose. It is by far the most emotive and intelligent speech in the play. We as a modern audience are moved by Shylock’s words, proving their power. Shakespeare’s use of this speech puts a serious question mark over the play’s being racist. Shakespeare also shows how the Christians are just as bad as Shylock through their behaviour in some circumstances – he is not afraid to present them in a despicable light.
Many of the Christians have shown their hatred towards Shylock, and have discriminated against him, although again, an Elizabethan audience would mostly have supported their behaviour, thus ensuring the play’s success. Supporting the assertion that the play is anti-racist is the fact that Shakespeare is known to have been quite forward-thinking. This is proven by things such as his lack of sexism in how he often dressed women, like Portia and Nerissa, as men in his plays and portrayed them as having equal intelligence to men, which many playwrights of his time did not.
In conclusion I believe “The Merchant of Venice”, despite being racist by definition, was supposed to be ambiguous and unclear as to whether racist or not. Although much of the audience at the time probably lacked the capacity to realize this and perceived the play as racist, albeit not negatively, they were probably at least left with doubts as to the moral standing of the play, and Shakespeare’s motives for writing it.
However, the more educated and forward-thinking members of the audience may have grasped that Shakespeare was trying to present the situation as unjust, and have taken something from the play as I believe Shakespeare intended people to, and have been alerted as to the error of their racist ways. I believe Shakespeare, as the highly intelligent person he is known to have been, knew this would be the case, but rather than making his play more obviously anti-racist, he opted for the less controversial, more palatable and more lucrative option of entertaining people with a side dose of anti-racist concern.
I believe this was a very wise decision, and I would have expected nothing less from William Shakespeare – after all, he had a reputation to uphold. He wanted to strike a balance and I think he did this very skilfully, which, along with Shakespeare’s genius, is proven by the play’s lasting success – through context thick and thin, from the starkly racist to the immaculately politically correct, “The Merchant of Venice” is still baffling us.
There is a quasi-prophetic nature to the subtlety of the warnings in the play – it is as necessary today as it ever was, and just as provocative. So, in answer as to whether Shakespeare wrote the play with anti-racist intentions, I believe the answer is definitely yes, he just did it in a way so the play’s credibility has endured not only Elizabethan critics, but centuries.