Is the Merchant of Venice anti-Christian or anti-Semitic Paper
The Merchant of Venice written by Shakespeare is a powerfully expressed play of love and hate, loyalty and prejudice, justice and mercy interwoven intricately, but delicately, while reflecting the most complex human beings and their affairs surrounding them. However, before consulting the play, we should consider the time and background in which it was written and performed, for the viewpoints of the characters in The Merchant of Venice are highly influenced by the aspect of the time it had been written, the Elizabethan era.
After the Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews), the Jews in foreign lands resolutely kept up their customs and religion. They formed right-knit communities and became known for their intelligence, hard work and capability for business. Unfortunately, these gifted qualities sometimes led to their being mistrusted and resented. This was especially the case in Christian countries, where anti-Semitism feeling was very strong. During the Elizabethan era, for instance, condemning the Jews without any justifiable reason was acceptable and no questions were asked against that fact.
The only reason for the mere action of cruelty was that the Jews were not Christians. However, what right did the Christians have in reproaching the Jews? Were the Jews as bad and damned as the Christians thought them to be? As a matter of course, some of the Jews were at least in some aspects. Shylock, the most important of the three Jews in The Merchant of Venice, definitely has some villainous nature in him even though his character seems rather ambiguous. First of all, Shylock is a mean miser who knows nothing but money.
In fact, Shylock seems to care more for his money than for his runaway daughter, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin. ” The way Shylock makes his precious money is by lending money to people by taking the interest, or “well won thrift” as he calls it. This might mean nothing to us nowadays, but for the gentlemen in Venice it was somewhat an insult, for taking interest meant that Shylock did not trust the word of a gentleman and therefore their integrity and honour.
However, Shylock’s obsession towards his money and profit is nevertheless understandable. Shylock is a foreigner in his own city. He may have lived all his life in Venice, yet he is treated as an “alien” just because he has different religious beliefs. Like his fellow Jews, therefore, he tries to rise above such prejudice and seeks security and success in money-lending business. Consequently, money means more than anything does to Shylock, it means his social statues and life for him. All Shylock wants is to be equal, and to be understood as an equal human being. “I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affection, passions? Fed with the same food, huirt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? … ” In addition, Shylock is not entirely apathetic in the matter of love. When his friend Tubal informs him with the news of his lost ring he cries, “Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. ” This shows that Shylock at least loved him wife, if nobody else.
Antonio and the Christians will not allow themselves to lend money for profit, but to support their extravagant lifestyle they still need money loan from the Jews they persecute. Shylock has been waiting to strike back at Antonio, one of Venice’s principal anti-Semites, and sees his chance when the merchant is compelled to come to him for credit. Shylock fools Antonio into making a contract with a terrifying forfeiture, “a pound of man’s flesh, taken from a man. ” It becomes clear from the beginning what Shylock’s intention is when he says, “I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him.
I am glad of it. ” When Antonio fails to pay the bond, Shylock refers obsessively and repeatedly to his “bond” and demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh, taken from the closest place to his heart. “I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak; I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more. ” Shylock is a fiend armed with scales and knife and his bloodthirsty campaign against Antonio is morally indefensible. Then again, we should also consider the situation Shylock is living in. He is not treated fairly and equally as a person but a dog, You have rated me about my monies and my usances … you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, and all for use of that which is mine own. ” Throughout the whole play, Shylock suffers constant verbal abuse such as “evil soul, devil, dog Jew, inhuman wretch, damned, inexecrable dog… etc. ” When seen from another perspective, Shylock can be viewed as a godly, clean-living family man who merely wished to do his business unimpeded. He is only a man driven into revenge by mindless, unreasonable persecution and theft of his only child.
He is a misguided soul who tried to get even within the law of those who hate him, only to be cruelly tricked a humiliated yet again. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter is another main Jew in The Merchant of Venice. She is not a filial daughter, for she elopes with a Christian, Lorenzo, betraying her father, his faith and his religion. To make the matter worse for Shylock, Jessica also takes a considerable amount of his dear fortune and jewels. In any historical and moral case, a daughter betraying her father is unacceptable. However, was the elopement entirely Jessica’s fault?
It is true that Jessica took some part in the elopement and stealing her father’s money. However, she was persuaded by Lorenzo and his love for her. In a way, Jessica is a victim of Lorenzo’s deception. It could be seen that Lorenzo eloped with Jessica, knowing well that she would bring considerable sum of her father’s money. Not very surprisingly, when the money is used up, Lorenzo’s love for Jessica seems to be drying up at the same time. Yet, Lorenzo’s behaviour towards Jessica changes once more when he hears the news of Shylock agreeing give his money to daughter.
How do the Christians differ from the Jews they persecute? Are they so much superior that they have the right to condemn another human being? The fact that the Christians think they differ greatly from the Jews is evident from the phrase, “… thou shalt see the difference of your spirit. ” Externally, Christians are gentle, amiable and honourable people who know the difference between right and wrong. They value each other’s honour immensely that they can even afford to lend money without any interest. They believe in nothing but rightful justice, all the while being merciful at the same time.
However, could it be true that the gentlemen exterior is just a mask with its title of honour? It is definitely possible; at least in the way Shakespeare saw it. Bassanio, a Christian, uses his close friend, Antonio, for money. What is worse, Bassanio takes advantage of Antonio’s love, which is evident from his words, “And if it stand as you yourself still do within the eye of honour, be assured my purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions,” and does not pay the money back after squandering more and more of it. Ultimately, Bassanio gets Antonio into trouble with his enemy Shylock, yet again because of the money.
Another good thing about Christians are that they are lovers when the Jews are said to be as unfeeling as stones. However, instead of marrying for their love, the Christian men seem to be marrying for the money and the position. For instance, when Bassanio describes Portia to Antonio the first thing he says about her is the amount of her money, “in Belmont is a lady richly left, and she is fair… ” This simple order of sentence implies that the prior reason Bassanio is going to marry Portia is not love, but her money and that the first thing he sees in love is also money.
In fact, he commoditised her as a thing rather than a person by saying, “and many Jasons come in quest of her. ” By modern social context, marrying someone for his or her money is not only deceiving, but unacceptable. On top of all deceiving, the Christians are deceitful and hypocritical. Portia, who is supposed to be fair and perfect, is about the most deceitful and hypocritical person throughout the whole play. She shows her true personality when she talks with Nerissa, “it is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.
Her hypocrisy is shown once again in the court when she repeatedly gives Shylock so many chances to back down, so adding to the humiliation she clearly wishes to inflict on him in her hour of victory, “The quality of mercy is not strained… it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes… it is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likes God’s when mercy seasons justice. ” However, when Shylock is defeated, he is shown little of the mercy, which before was so earnestly recommended to him by Portia. Half his wealth is confiscated and -far worse- he must lose his faith and convert to Christianity.
In any case, the most appalling and nasty aspect of the Christians is that they are extremely prejudiced. They have such high opinion of themselves and such low opinion of Jews that they think they are the only chosen ones for heaven after death, “… the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children… therefore be o’good cheer, for truly I think you are damned. ” They condemn the Jews for what they are and no matter what the Jews do, nothing will change the Christian’s perceptions. Jessica, who is married to Lorenzo, and therefore a Christian is still referred to as “yond stranger” and “infidel”.
The Merchant of Venice seems to contain both good and bad aspects of both the Christians and the Jews. Whether it is anti-Christian or anti-Semitic, one cannot decide, but it is true that Shakespeare had a deep understanding about the suffering and the behaviours, which resulted from racial prejudice. Shakespeare tried to write the story of mere human beings of different races, showing their lives and the way they dealt with them. He may have also wanted to say, “What is real justice? How can you draw a line between the justice and injustice and classify them?
How can you even divide people into being justifiable or not? ” He may have also wanted to tell people that appearance is not what you can be dependant on. That it may be something that you did not even dream of and maybe that it may have so much more to it than what you judged it to contain. Just like the Jews who were obsessed with money externally, but who started collecting money because they wanted to be accepted. Just like the Christians who looked like gentlemen externally, but who were nothing better than another race they despised.