The Hero of Shakespeare’s Comedy “The Merchant of Venice”

The following example essay on “The hero of Shakespeare’s comedy The Merchant of Venice” is an analysis of a literary work in which a Jewish pawnbroker lends money to the merchant Antonio against a pound of meat from his own chest and stubbornly pursues a contract between them in court

It is quite clear when reading The Merchant of Venice that there is a large focus on Shylock being a Jew. This is very prominent in his “I am a Jew” speech he, the Jewish moneylender, angry and betrayed, rails against the non-Jewish world which torments him.

Antonio “hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew,” he exclaims. Then comes the famous speech. “Hath not a Jew eyes?

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…. ” However from this alone we cannot decide if Shakespeare’s play is anti Semitic.

In Shakespeare’s day, anti-Semitism was all the rage in England. Despite the fact that Jews had been kicked out of the country three hundred years previously by the Edict of York, hatred for them remained powerful. Ten generations of Englishmen had never seen or talked to a Jew, but that didn’t stop them from thinking Jews were evil, smelt bad, committed ritual murder and had other salacious traits. Elizabethans didn’t wash.

Queen Elizabeth herself was considered a little quirky for insisting that she took a bath once a year.

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But it was a well known fact that Jews bathed – Jewish women once a month in the ritual mikve, and Jewish men just before the Sabbath. Somehow the general public knew that the immersions in water were related to the monthly cycle – so they firmly believed that Jewish men menstruated too – and every week! It was in this climate that Shakespeare wrote his plays.

Pandering to the taste of his audience, he stuck in many lines that may be seen as anti Semitic. If I do not love her I am a Jew,” proclaims Benedick about Beatrice; meaning that if he does not love her he is a scoundrel. In “Macbeth,” the witches intone “Liver of blaspheming Jew” as they pop another vile ingredient into their cauldron. Servants invite each other for drinks, stating that one who refuses the offer is “a Jew. ” Portia, in her impassioned speech about mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” changes her tune when it is her turn to be merciful. “Not so fast, Jew”. to Shylock, as she relentlessly increases his punishment.

This is a concrete example of why maybe Shylock is the way he is: “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. ” I would argue, despite the anti Semitic content of some of the scenes in this play, that the play is not solely anti Semitic or that Shakespeare is so. At first it may appear that Shakespeare is merely building the play up to show a cantankerous Jew who receives his comeuppance, however Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is shown to be a hard-hearted man who curses Jews and spits upon their coats.

When he is forced to ask Shylock for a loan, not only does he refuse to apologise for this behaviour, but also he actually says, “I am like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. ” He wants the money as an enemy – not as a friend. Shylock is shown to have a reason for his anger and his stubborn demand to receive his “pound of flesh. ” Apart from Antonio’s unpleasantness, there is the matter of Rebecca, Shylock’s daughter, who has run off with her father’s money and jewels in order to marry a Christian.

Shylock has a motive for hating Christians and their double standards. In this way the play actually shows both sides of the coin, that Christians have the potential to be bad just as well as Jews. Jessica being Shylock’s daughter is obviously Jewish but it is interesting to see the stark contrast is persecution that they receive. Her character is more a perpetrator of discrimination rather than a victim of it. If anything, Jessica’s behaviour towards her father reinforces the anti-Semitism that is in the play.

When Gratiano says that Jessica is a “gentle and no Jew” he says so because Jessica has behaved like a “good Christian” by stealing from the dissolute Shylock. Moreover, Jessica says: “When I was with him I have heard him swear to Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum that he did owe him. ” Here we see Jessica’s own words supporting the stereotype that Jews are immoral. She describes Shylock’s house as “hell” explicitly connecting Shylock to the devil himself.

And Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences were likely left with the impression that Jessica’s theft of Shylock’s funds is deserved – that the Jew is finally getting what he deserves. Shylock is a victim, whose mind is clouded with grief and frustration at the Christians relentless persecution of him, and their theft of his only daughter. However, because he is overcome with this red mist, he loses himself in his hatred, and it appears to everyone that he has gone too far. Until then the only Christian to address Shylock directly by his name was Portia, but after he passes the point of no return, she reverts to calling him Jew like the others.

The fact that he passes this point shows that he has some villain in him, but no more than Portia. It is ironic that Portia passes judgement on Shylock, and criticises him for not showing Antonio mercy, yet she acts with the same lack of mercy towards Bassanio regarding the ring as Shylock did to Antonio. In conclusion, Shylock shows some of the characteristics of a villain, but these are simply products of his victimisation; Shylock is a victim of the self-absorbed, racist community that Venice had become.

His anger and frustration that lead to him making poor judgements are products of having to endure the torment of this environment. An Elizabethan audience would probably harbour a little sympathy for Shylock because of the way the Christians persecute him but however hard Shakespeare has tried to even out the playing field with regards to the portrayal of Jews in a bad light, the audience would of probably left the theatre with their anti Semitism intact or inflamed.

Viewing the play through modern eyes, Shylock can be seen as both an Elizabethan stereotype but also a human being. Ironically, it is precisely because of the stereotypical elements in Shylock’s character that many people argue against The Merchant of Venice, viewing it as an anti-Semitic work, which is an understandable reaction in a post-Holocaust era. Shakespeare, however rarely creates a one-dimensional villain, but a complex character who usually has many lessons to teach the audience.

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The Hero of Shakespeare’s Comedy “The Merchant of Venice”. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from

The Hero of Shakespeare’s Comedy “The Merchant of Venice”
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