“The Merchant of Venice” is a story of love and hate, power, control and inequality. It evolves around Shylock, a rich Jew moneylender who lives in Venice and Venetian Christians, which have constantly abused and humiliated Shylock.
The moneylender tricks Antonio, one of his abusers, to sign a bond that will entitle him to one pound of his flesh if he doesn’t pay back the money he borrowed in three months. Antonio borrowed this money to lend it to his friend Bassanio who needs it to try for the hand of Portia, a rich and beautiful heiress.
After Shylocks daughter, Jessica runs away with a Christian and Bassanio wins Portia’s hand, news come that Antonio’s ships have been destroyed and he isn’t able to pay Shylock in time.
The spiritually wounded Shylock wants revenge and demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh but Portia turns the tables on him during the court hearing. He not only doesn’t get a pound of Antonio’s flesh but half his wealth is confiscated by the venetian state and he’s forced to become a Christian, the very thing that humiliated and reduced him.
The reason Shakespeare’s work is so popular today is that he wrote about human nature and how people behave. That is why “The Merchant of Venice” is as relevant now as it was four centuries ago.
Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” to be viewed in front of white people in the 16th century. The Merchant of Venice followed other plays where Jews were involved like the “Jew of Malta”. Unlike in these other plays where Jews involved performed all kinds of outrages; Shylock is someone who the Christians pick on. In Shakespeare’s time white people were very racist towards the aliens. Venice was one of the few cities in the world that had laws and gave rights to the ethnic minorities but even so the rights of Christians were superior.
“…If you prick us, do we not bleed? … The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instructions.” We do not know whether Shakespeare himself was racist or not. But from these words said by Shylock we realise that that Shakespeare understood how Shylock felt and where his anger and hatred came from.
This story was written to be viewed in front of a racist audience who would expect Shylock to be humiliated and reduced yet Shakespeare managed to create sophisticated characters that can be played in a number of different ways.
Shakespeare points out in this play to stories that only educated people would know about such as Portia’s reference to the ‘Hercules and sea monster’ legend that she uses to be compared to Troy’s virgins:
‘…I stand for sacrifice.
The rest aloof are the Sardinian wives’.
This reveals that the play was also written for high classes that would attend when the play was shown. Educated people like these would understand more of the play’s complexity and characters. They would analyse the play and see which actions sparked, which feelings, but from my point of view they’d have similar views towards Shylock and other characters as the rest of the audiences.
The Elizabethans audience would have seen Antonio as noble gentlemen. On the contrary today we see Antonio as a self-seeking, arrogant, racist. Antonio abuses Shylock in many different ways simply because he is a Jew. He calls him a misbeliever and many other names offending his Jewish faith, he spits on him, he kicks him. This would look ‘normal’ to the Elizabethans audiences while today in the 21st century we would be outraged and disgusted by such behaviour. Such behaviour as Antonio’s would not be tolerated and if Antonio was to abuse Shylock today he would be arrested charged and probably sentenced to jail.
The fact that Shylock is a Jew would have automatically made him the ‘bad guy’ and a subject of abuse ion by the audience. He would have probably been played as an evil and dark also comic character. Unlike us the Elizabethans audience would have not been interested in Shylock’s complexity. They would have not been listening to him nor interested in figuring out where do his feelings of anger and rage towards Christians come from. On the contrary they’d found it hilarious when Shylock is deeply hurt. Despised as an alien and unconverted Jew they would believe that he was a sinner bound for hell.
Shylock can be played in very altered ways. In the two versions that I have seen he’s portrayed in the Modern version as businessman that speaks with a Jewish accent who is a good, warm but strict father and who wants to teach Antonio a lesson. He is broken to pieces from Jessica’s elopement. When he is given the right to cut a pound of Antonio’s flesh he firstly hesitates and then is stopped by Portia. He is represented colder and darker in the Oliver production therefore more malicious. Depending on how you represent a character gives the audiences a view angle to look at this character. The Elizabethan stage Jew would have been someone who showed hatred towards the Christians and would do anything to harm them.
Portia appeals herself as a confident and composed young woman yet gives herself to Bassanio as unschooled girl. She can be depicted in opposed methods. In the Oliver production Portia is presented as more in control, someone that knows herself and capable of hiding feelings. In the courtroom she is very professional and formal. She makes her speech on mercy standing up, talking to Shylock from across the table. On the other hand, in the Modern production Portia is also in control but is represented as slightly softer and gentle. In the courtroom she takes a chair, sits next to Shylock and looking him in the eyes, gently explains him about mercy as thought he is a child. On the contrary with her behaviour in the Oliver production she’s desperate to change Shylock’s mind.
The Elizabethan audiences would admire Portia and simply see her as angel who saved a poor merchant’s life. They’d have been delighted when Antonio is saved and Shylock starts to get charged. To them he just was a bloodthirsty moneylender.
Now we see Portia as a touch of cruelty. We understand in the trial she carefully plans her actions against Shylock. She knows about the loophole in the bond all along, gives him three chances to back down and waits until the very moment he’s going to cut Antonio’s flesh when she stops him.
‘Tarry a little, there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood’
Portia’s suitors Morocco and Aragon can either be interpreted as comics or serious. In the Oliver production Morocco was a comic who wore traditional clothes and talked to himself while Arragon was an old man about 70 years of age who clearly did not deserve Portia’s hand. In the Modern version Morocco was a wealthy black businessman while Arragon was a Spaniard who used Spanish gestures and talked with a Spanish accent. Although Aragon looked serious he was made to be a comic. The gestures and accent formed a rather racist humour that managed to get me laughing. As it was described as a comedy Shakespeare must have made the two characters comics. The audiences would have been entertained and would probably insulted these two if they thought they were not worthy of Portia’s hand. Humour races and different traditions is still present in blockbuster films made today like ‘Scary Movie’ or ‘Black Night’. The difference is that today the humour is not humiliating for a race.
Solanio and Salarino make Shylock the subject of their jokes after his daughter runs away with Lorenzo. Referring to him as ‘the dog Jew’ they say that Shylock is bothered more about his money than his daughter running away:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!’
They continue their victimisation although they know Shylock is grieved at his daughter’s disappearance. While the Elizabethan audience would have found this amusing, we see it as racist and senseless.
Throughout the play there are moments were the emotional intensity is high and others where it’s low. The main, most powerful excitement in “The Merchant of Venice” starts to rise when we hear about Antonio ships and drops Shylock has been punished. The courtroom is a very tense scene. Although we know what happen we would follow the action in silence. To the Elizabethan audience the play would have been unknown. In Elizabethan times Jews were not expected to hit back to the Christian abuses therefore Shylock’s actions would not have been understood by the audience and regarded as immoral. The law of Venice itself prohibited Jews from retaliating. Shylock used the law to reciprocate against Antonio. He used the Christian law against a Christian. This would have made him an even more hated figure by the audience. The Elizabethan just like the rest of the white Christian population thought themselves as being superior to other races, like Jews. Shylock had tricked Antonio, showing more intelligence than him.
The Elizabethan audience would have shouted out rude remarks. They’d have become furious when Shylock refuses the money and some could have even thrown food on the stage. Finally when Portia stops Shylock the Elizabethans would have been overjoyed. As we look at Gratiano as an unfeeling racist the Elizabethans would have loved it when he discriminates and torments Shylock, joining in the discrimination. According to them Shylock got the punishment he deserved for such wickedness.
Although today’s audiences sees Shylock as a man who has been controlled by his feelings and goes too far in his search for revenge, we do feel sorry for him. Nevertheless what he was trying to do is wrong. It is impossible to watch this play today without big feelings of discomfort because we see each other as equal and think it is wrong to maltreat people because of their race.
The humour is practical rather than jokes said by the characters. For example in the end Portia and Nerissa torment their husbands for giving their rings away when it is they who have them. They share this secret with the audience while the husbands do not know yet that their wives were the doctor and the clerk. It is amusing the situation Bassanio and Gratiano find themselves in. Alternatively this scene can be played as a very serious one because their husbands have been persuaded to give the rings, which they swore they’d wear until death.
The play was originally described as a comedy while in fact it is a drama. The views on races have completely changed and today we have totally different views and treatments towards the outsiders. Unlike the Elizabethans we think it’s completely wrong to abuse or mistreat people because of their race. We see the play as a drama rather than a comedy as it was originally described. The needs of the audiences have changed. Today we have different views towards racism. Rather than being prejudice we judge people on their actions. The only parts of the play that today’s audiences could look at as comical are the scenes with Morocco and Arragon and when Portia and Nerissa torment their husbands in Act 5. This is of course if the characters are played in comical ways.
‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a story of love and hate. Shakspeare has joined together hatred and racism evolving around Shylock with love and romance story developing with Lorenzo and Jessica, Basanio and Portia and Gratiano and Nerissa. The amorous scenes like the ‘gentle night’ with Lorenzo and Jessica sharply contrast in the scenes where is shown hatred, revenge and racism like the ‘court scene.’ There is love and hatred language used before. For example when Portia gives herself to Bassanio – “her gentle spirit/ Commits itself to be directed” and when Shylock reveals his hatred for Antonio – “I hate him for he is a Christian”. But in my opinion the ‘moonlight night’ is the most romantic scene and the ‘courtroom’ shows more of the issues of racism and hate.
The romantic language used by Lorenzo and Jessica while speaking gently to each other, remembering famous lovers contrast with the language for revenge used by Shylock and the racist language used by Gratiano towards Shylock.
‘The moon shines bright, in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise, in such a night.’
‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my band.’
‘O be thou damned, in execrable dog.’
It looks a little absurd for racism and hatred to unfold with romance and love. Nevertheless it does make a powerful combination of contrast and provides us different with aspects and ways to look at the play. Through years people have been concentrating in different points. As we tend to focus in Shylock’s tragedy the Elizabethans would focus in the love story. After Shylock leaves the stage the atmosphere lightness up. Right after the “court scene” we meet the episode of romance and rings. We are transported from the tense atmosphere of the courtroom in to the world of the couples. After getting what they wanted and expected, Shylock to lose, the Elizabethans would have enjoyed the poetry between Lorenzo and Jessica and the torment of Bassanio and Gratiano by their wives. The sudden change in temper and variety would look bizarre to us. Focusing on Shylock we fail to adapt as good to the romance and jokes of the next few scenes. We would be left shocked by what happens in the courtroom. However Shakespeare gives us time for the tragic feelings evoked in the audience to soften and mellow by adding the ring episode.
Act 5 draws us from Shylock’s world. It would have also been too abrupt to end the play with Shylock’s exist. At the end there is a happy ending for all except Shylock and Jessica, the outsiders.
Shakespeare could have given the play another title like ‘The Jew of Venice’, The Gentleman of Venice’ or ‘The Lady of Belmont’ but he chose to call it ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Antonio is the merchant of play. So why did Shakespeare name the play after this character?
Antonio is the fountain of the play. He is racist and arrogant that takes pleasure in humiliating outsiders without taking in configuration that the victim would one day hit back. Antonio is one Venice’s principal anti-Semites. Antonio is one of the characters that represents how the white Christians would feel towards the outsiders in Elizabethan times and how the whites would treat them. He is the one that triggers everything. He has invested his money and is exposed to Shylock by Bassnio. Being against money lending he borrows 3000 ducats and is tricked into signing the bond. You don’t expect favours from someone you have maltreated but Antonio being arrogant easily falls in Shylock’s trap. Maybe this explains Shakespeare action.
Antonio has called Shylock ‘misbeliever, cut-throat dog and spat upon my Jewish gabber dine’, simply because ‘I am a Jew’. Shylock tells he has ‘cooled my friends’ and ‘heated mine enemies’.
Antonio arrogance shows when he’s asked by Shylock why he expects money from someone he has abused and humiliated. Antonio answers:
“I am as like to call the so again,
To spit on the again, to spurn thee too,
If thow wilt lend this money, lend it not.
As to thy friends,
But lend it rather to thine enemy.”
Antonio regards Jews as less than human. In the court scene Antonio offers his share if Shylock turns into a Christian which looks as a merciful act from him. But in fact Antonio strips Shylock of the last things he has left. By becoming a Christian Shylock abandons his religion nor can he lend money because the law does not allow it for the Christians. Antonio has separated Shylock by the last things identifying him as ‘who he is’.
Jews are originally from Israel. Many Jews migrated in other countries to seek new lives. They are known as hard working and clever people that know how to deal with business matters. Jews kept their religion, culture and traditions. Through the history they have been persecuted and tortured. Many countries have records of crimes against Jews.
Shylock is the Jew of this play. He is identifiable as member of an alien race by appearance, manners and speech. The Christians need his services to borrow money but hate him for being a usurer. Shylock is one of the most complex characters Shakespeare has ever written about. He can either be interpreted as a dark villain, an insensitive moneylender that makes money from people’s misfortunes and takes great delight on his way to kill a merchant that has exposed his corrupt ways. Or as the victim of the society, someone who has been humiliated because of his race and becomes obsessed in his search for revenge. Audience over the years have regarded Shylock in different ways and have had different feelings towards him. Of course Shylock is a bit of both but today we look at him as a victim rather than a villain.
Being a successful usurer Shylock has suffered humiliation and racism. The main fountain of his suffering is Antonio and his friends. Just like the other Jews Shylock has tried to ignore and rose over the prejudice following him. Shylock has kept his traditions and religion. Tubal is willing to help Shylock in searching for his daughter which would suggest that Shylock is respected in the Jewish community. What happens to him represents what has happened to Jews through the history.
We firstly meet Shylock in scene three, when Bassanio and Antonio see him to borrow 3000 ducats. Shylock is intelligent and a good businessman. He manages to hide his feelings towards Antonio and reveals them aside to the audience. He says that ‘I hate him for he is a Christian, lends out money gratis’ and ‘he hates our secret nation’.
Although Shylock gives three reasons I believe that the only real reason he hates Antonio is that he is a racist anti-Semitic who has humiliated and abused him and other Jews. Shylock informs us that his treatment has been taking place before the play started by referring to ‘ancient grudge I bear him’.
Some people may think that Shylock is an unfeeling money leader who was given a chance to be accepted and is being rejected because of his intensively and ruthless ambitions. They would rely on Shylock’s hatred – ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’ and what Jessica says about her father’s intention – ‘he would rather have Antonio’s flesh’ therefore say that Shylock’s true purpose was to kill Antonio. But I don’t agree. A lot happens in this play that could change Shylock’s intentions. I look at him as a man with a darker side that is pushed too far. Antonio many times has insulted him by calling him a misbeliever and cut-through dog disrespecting his faith, has spat on him and kicked as though he was an animal.
Shylock brings up the bond as a merry sport and tricks the arrogant Antonio into signing it. Although he doubts the safety of Antonio’s ships he lends him the money but I believe he just wanted to teach Antonio a lesson.
Shylock has suffered in human treatment in the hands of the Christian. Although the ethnic minorities had some rights the law of Venice prohibited the outsiders like Shylock from retaliating when Christians abused them. Even Shylock’s servant, Lancelot has no respect for him. Shylock uses this Christian law to hit back at Antonio. He has been bullied and wants revenge but has no intention of harming Antonio.
Shylock is a good loving father but strict. He has planned Jessica’s future and is devastated when she steals from him and runs away. As a father he fails to understand Jessica’s feelings.
In the Modern version of the play Shylock and Jessica sing to each other. We realise they love each other and have a good father and daughter relationship by the eye contact, how they sing to each other warmly. Shylock touches Jessica with love and gently kisses her hand. Then Lancelot mentions that there is a mask ball and Shylock suddenly slaps Jessica. This suggests that he’s very strict and does not want his daughter to have anything to do with Christians.
He immediately shows signs of regret. You can tell by his body language that he is sorry and feels bad about what he did but does not actually apologise to her. This night the Christians conspire against Shylock. They invite him to dinner while Lorenzo and others get Jessica.
What Jessica has done is the most appalling disaster that can happen to an orthodox Jewish family. She defies her father and steals from him. In such cases the daughter would be considered dead. Shylock has been abandoned by his own flesh and blood, which really wounds him. Leah’s ring has big sentimental valve to shylock. The fact that Jessica gave it away for a monkey deepens his wound. She is seduced by Christians to run away leaving behind her father, her house, her religion, culture and traditions. Shylock is torn to pieces. The repetition of words in the conversation with Tubal adds to the dramatisation, shows how saddened Shylock is. -“Why there, there, there, there!”
This is what causes the fire of revenge within Shylock to start burning out of control. When he hears about Antonio’s ships he feels the need for revenge. He could not control his daughter’s actions nor how the Christians treat him but he is able to control the life of Antonio and the Christian law itself gives him this right. He chooses to plea for Antonio’s flesh and revenge all the humiliation that he has suffered from him.
‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ Shylock argues that a Jew and a Christian are the same therefore he will take revenge just like a Christian would. He says to Salerino and Solanio that ‘The villainy you teach me I will execute.’
Modern plays make “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock’s play. Shylock stops tolerating his in human treatment and rebels against it. He knows that suffering is the badge of his tribe and wants to change the way the world treats Jews. He refuses the money but is touched by Portia’s speech. He insists that he must cut a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock knows what he is doing is wrong but he must avenge his treatment, daughter and wife. His social side tells him to take the money but his emotional side insists on revenge. So deep in his pain to push him in extreme circumstances. But he was wrong in thinking that the law could be exploited for him. Portia stops him announcing that Shylock has been breaking the law. As consequence half his wealth is confiscated by the state, his life is forgiven but he is forced to convert into a Christian.
Once again Shylock is a looser in a Christian world. His humanity is laughed at. He is reduced to the very thing that humiliated him, stole his daughter and spat on him. He abandons the fight to change how the world treats the Jews and learns that suffering will always be his tribe’s badge. His liability to obsession has dragged him to the brink of death. But he does not die physically. By forcing him to become a Christian Antonio and the Duke strip away the last things he has left. His money, his proud, his daughter, his religion and everything that makes him who he is, is taken away from him by the Christian society. There is nothing left to indicate that this man is Shylock. By being a Christian he cannot even practise his occupation.
The Oliver version of the play ends with a Kaddish, a song sang to the Jews dead. For a man like Shylock this is spiritual death. The true him does not exist any more. Shylock threatens no further revenge, on the contrary he quietly with draws saying that he is ‘not well’.
Portia is the lady of Belmont. It is her hand that Bassanio wants to win. She is described by Morocco as ‘this shine, this mortal breathing saint’, by Arragon as ‘my hearts hope’, by Lorenzo as awarded with ‘god-like amity’, by Bassanio as ‘of wondrous virtues’ and even by Jessica as ‘the joys of heaven here on earth’.
During the play Portia changes from one identity to another. She moves from her soft existence to the harsh, strict young advocate in the court of law and than back again. Portia has one true friend that she confides in, her maid Nerissa. She has a variable character. She is gentle and nice to those that she likes and ruthless to those that she dislikes. She communicates gently and politely with Bassanio’s friends but ruthlessly punishes Shylock and makes racist remarks on her suitors. These characteristics of her character allows on actress to develop her role.
Portia compares herself to the Dardanian wives considering herself as a victim that she can’t choose her own husband but has to marry the first, no matter whether she likes him or not, that chooses the right casket. She acts differently with Bassanio. She enjoys staying with him and opens herself to him. I think that she does have feelings for Bassanio but Portia believes that women should keep quite about their feelings and that is what she does. Bassanio does not see Portia only as the woman who he loves but also as a rich prize and a source of wealth. Portia’s reference of the rack suggests that she doubts Bassanio’s love. Nevertheless she is happy when Bassanio chooses right.