The Merchant of Venice

If a man has prejudged, negative opinions against a group of people, because of race, colour, wealth or any other reason, can he be considered to be “uneducated” in the modern world or has society merely educated him with narrow-minded views? The concept of racism, prejudices and inequalities is dealt with throughout Shakespeare’s “A merchant of Venice” and although it was written around 1598, like most of Shakespeare’s works the themes are universal and timeless which makes them very relevant to contemporary society.

The main themes of the play are justice and mercy and how these is given and received in the bitter relationship between

Antonio, the Christian merchant and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. “The merchant of Venice” is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s comedies as it has a happy ending for most of the characters and an Elizabethan audience would find Shylock’s tragedies amusing, but in the last four hundred years society has drastically changed. Would a modern audience have a different opinion on the treatment of Shylock or would the Elizabethan values remain? Fear of the unknown is part of human nature and the Jewish religion and its followers were very unknown to the vast majority people in Shakespeare’s time.

Jews started to enter England in 1066 and in the course of a generation they established communities in Bristol, York, Canterbury and London, and began to prosper by trading and lending money. However, in 1290 under the reign of Edward I, 16’000 Jews were expelled from England although a few managed to stay in England by hiding their identity.

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This expulsion led to 350 years of Jewish exile from England, which means that there had been no Jews in England for about 300 years before Shakespeare was born!

Few people knew a Jew and the majority of people were quite simple, uneducated and illiterate. It was easy to categorize Jews and tereotype them. Something that helped in the stereotyping process was a famous drama by Marlow called “The Jew of Malta”, performed in 1589. The lead character, Barabas refuses to pay tribute to the crown and so, his wealth is seized and his house converted into a convent. Enraged by these events Barabas sets out on journey of slaughter, which includes the poisoning of an entire convent.

Elizabethan audiences loved the exaggeration and hyperbole of Barabas’s character and the conclusion of the story, were he is boiled to death in a cauldron of water while screaming was very much enjoyed by the audience! The Jew of Malta” is not just an anti-Semitic play, but it clearly shows the hypocrisy shown by the Christian community in Elizabethan England. One of the few Jews in England was Dr. Lopez. He was the doctor for Queen Elizabeth I. Lopez was convicted of trying to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and was executed after he was tortured quite savagely, and during the interrogation the fact that he was Jewish became known.

The causes for conviction were beliefs that Lopez had tried to poison Queen Elizabeth, but what was later discovered was that the facial makeup she used contained Mercury, a highly poisoned metallic element. However the lack of scientific knowledge in Elizabethan times meant that Lopez was killed. Significantly, Marlowe’s drama “The Jew of Malta” was performed shortly after the execution, some accounts claim it was merely ten days after, so the idea of Jews being evil, murderous creatures would have been highly inflicted into Elizabethan stereotypes.

Shakespeare’s generation based their anti-Semitism on religious grounds. The Nazi program which climaxed in the Holocaust of World War 2 and resulted in the deaths of six million Jews was anti-Semitism on racial grounds. A Nazi does not care if a Jew believes in God or rays; A Jew is a Jew and they were considered racially inferior. Elizabethan England however, had inherited the Christian propaganda that the Jews had murdered Christ and so were connected to the devil and were actively trying to stop the spread of Christianity.

Jewish people do not accept the blame for the crucifixion of Christ for various reasons: * Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution * People who lived decades after the event itself and were most likely to be biased against the Jews (so to take the blame from Christianity) wrote the accounts of the crucifixion and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Throughout it’s history, Christianity has tried to stop the following of other religions as well as Judaism.

Paganism and other Earth based religions had been established hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus yet as Christianity began to spread, leaders of the Church claimed that the pagan horned God was the devil. This kind of religious propaganda has stayed in society for years as this is were the concept of the devil having horns comes from. Even Christians themselves did not live together well in Elizabethan times, and still today as can be seen in Northern Ireland; Catholics and Protestants onflict. When we see these points, it is no wonder that the Christian Church throughout history targeted Judaism.

All this information is relatively clear to how Elizabethan society as a whole viewed the Jews, yet what is not so clear is what exactly Shakespeare’s image of a Jew was, as they had been banished from England three hundred years before his birth. This is a personal opinion, and the reader must come to his or her own conclusion after considering whether Shakespeare did satisfy the narrow-minded views the audience would have against the Jews. To do so, not just the text hould be analysed but also the dramatic devices used, stage history and the history of the Jews.

The purpose of the first scenes is to inform the viewer of the main plot, e. . the bond, but Shylock’s first scene not only tells us of this, but also we realise Shylock’s character traits. These traits are quickly laid down and repeated – his focus on money, (“my meaning in saying he is a good man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient”- lines 13-15) his hatred of Christians, (“I hate him for he is a Christian”- line 38) his pride in his religion and also, his cunning mind. Shylock actually speaks less than Bassanio or Portia and appears in only five scenes but due to his audience-provoking character he is the most dominating character.

Shylock’s first appearance in “The Merchant of Venice” is in Act One Scene Three. From his entrance on stage the audience would identify him as a Jew, as he would be wearing traditional Jewish clothing such as a gabardine, which is a loose cloak worn by Jewish men. Shakespeare would emphasize the costumes in the Globe theatre and other theatre during his time, because the audiences were quite rowdy. People were known to shout at the villains, cheer for their heroes, nd comment on the play loudly. At the same time, food and drink vendors would be going around the audience selling their goods.

Distinctive costumes made Shakespeare’s plots easier to follow for the viewers. However, as mentioned before, many spectators would jeer at the villains and Shylock’s entrance on stage would receive a very negative response. What adds to the audience’s aggression towards Shylock is what he is talking about in his debut. He is talking to Bassanio about lending three thousand ducats (form of currency) to Antonio. This marks him as a usurer, someone who lends money and charges interest, hich was hated in Elizabethan times.

This may seem hard to understand as this is how major banks work today, but in the Old Testament the exacting of interest on a loan was forbidden to Jews who were lending to Jews and in the Middle Ages it was forbidden to Christian clerics and then to laymen. Medieval theory says that money cannot breed money and Aristotle taught that money was “barren”. After the rise of capitalism however, the sixteenth-century reformers relaxed in this teaching but some countries toleration of usury came late, and England was one of those countries. The way Shylock may be acting at this point in the play would also agitate the audience.

Bassanio, a Christian and a good friend of Antonio, comes to Shylock the Jewish moneylender, whom he and Antonio have cruelly mocked many times before, to ask to borrow money on behalf of Antonio. For the first time, Shylock feels as though he has the upper hand. Nowadays most people would certainly be able to understand why Shylock would lengthen this superiority but not Shakespeare’s audiences. This would simply annoy them more as they would not be able to see that a Jew is still a human and would have uman reactions, just like a Christian, just like themselves.

The main plot of the play is determined in this scene, as the forfeit of the bond is decided. If Antonio does not pay the bond back within three months then Antonio must allow Shylock to cut a pound of flesh from anywhere upon Antonio’s body. Shylock suggests the forfeit in a joking manner as he says: “This kindness will I show. Go with me to a notary; seal me there Your single bond, and, in a merry sport, If you repay me not on such a day … let the forfeit Be nominated for an equal pound Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me” Antonio merrily agrees to the bond, but Bassanio cautions him; he doesn’t want Antonio risking his life so that Bassanio can borrow money, however Antonio reassures Bassanio that “My ships come home a month before the day”. What he means by this is that as a merchant not only will his ships return home but his money also. What Antonio and Bassanio do not realise though is the fact that Shylock would much rather have a pound of Antonio’s flesh than any amount of money because Shylock seeks revenge upon Antonio for the way he treats him and his fellow Jews.

Antonio and Bassanio, like the Christian audience, would not be able to believe that a Jew would want revenge on a Christian; their narrow-minded views would not comprehend that. Lines 102 to 125 in Act One Scene Three are of Shylock speaking to Antonio about the unfair way he has been treated in by Antonio and his fellow Christians in Venice. This speech is essential for the comparison of a modern audience’s view on the treatment of Shylock compared to an audience of Shakespeare’s time. Shylock speaks to Antonio about the way he has received abuse from the Christians, verbal and physical.

Shylock states that although Antonio as often criticised him about his business, he has “borne it with a patient shrug, For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. This again emphasizes his strong belief in his religion, and reinforces image that throughout history the Jews have often been singled out for persecution. More evidence of how Shylock is treated in Venice continues, as he states, “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,” This shows how not only was he verbally abuse, but also physically.

He is constantly insulted because of who he is, and Christians spit upon his religious clothing. He late in the speech claims that Antonio has “foot me as you spurn a stranger cur”, (“Kicked me as you would kick a stray dog”), and did “void your rheum upon my beard”. All of these points show Shylock’s side of the story, and Shylock then questions Antonio, “Hath a dog money? ” The way that Shylock mocks Antonio by asking this would anger Shakespeare’s audience, how dare a Jew speak to a Christian in such a way?

It is clear now that the Elizabethans, like the Nazis, saw the Jews as an inferior race. Shylock asks if Antonio expects him to humble himself to Antonio and say: “Fair sir you spat on me Wednesday last; You spurned me on such a day; another time You called me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you this much moneys”? He would most likely speak in a sardonic, scornful tone as Shylock for probably the first time, has power above Antonio. Again, the audience are angered. After Shylock has spoken of his suffering, Antonio blatantly tells Shylock that he will most likely call him again!

Antonio does not care about the pain Shylock has to go through because of him and his friends, because Shylock is a Jew. He obviously does not like the tone Shylock has spoken to him with and so he is trying to regain his ower. Antonio and Shylock settle on the bond and Act One, Scene Three ends, with Bassanio disliking the terms of the bond. The dramatic tension increases as throughout the play as Antonio’s ships fail to return home and the audience informed of this revelation by the use of two minor characters. Shakespeare often used this technique, as it is an effective way to move on in the story.

Salerio and Solanio are the minor characters used as in Act Two Scene Eight, they joke about Shylock’s misfortune (his daughter Jessica has stolen a lot of his money and has ran away to marry Lorenzo, a Christian) and hen Salerio informs Solanio of how a “vessel of our country richly fraught” has crashed, and Salerio suspects it may be Antonio’s. The audience would presume that it was Antonio’s ship, as this would have to happen for the sake of the plot, and it is also clear that with his recent misfortunes, Shylock’s need for revenge upon the Christians would be greater.

Shylock’s vindictiveness feeds on the news of Antonio’s sorrow and the conclusion of the story is the trial scene, Act Four, Scene One. Antonio could not pay the 3000 ducats back in time and Shylock demands that he takes the pound of Antonio’s flesh, it seems that no one can top him by persuasion nor legally can they stop him. The matter is brought to court where the comedy aspect returns, as Bassanio’s new wife, the beautiful Portia dresses as a young lawyer named Balthazar to represent Antonio in court.

Comedies are based on convention of some sort, so an Elizabethan audience would have known Balthazar was actually Portia yet for the purpose of the story this would have been easily accepted, as would the fact that her husband doesn’t recognise her. Shylock enters the courtroom and the Duke of Venice proceeds with a speech he presumes will make Shylock show mercy towards Antonio. He ends it with “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew! ” This shows how not just the Christians and merchants see him and Judaism, but also the authorities, as the Duke represents political views.

They all doubt that a Jew could ever want revenge upon a Christian no matter what the situation is they expect Jews to be meek towards them and never retaliate. Shylock is defiant and is sure he will have his bond. Again, his religion is part of the argument because “by our holy Sabbath have I sworn”. He believes strongly that he is standing up for the Jews, for all the suffering they have gone through. A main factor that adds to the delicate situation is concerned with the law of Venice. Venice had a good reputation of strictly enforcing its laws, even against its citizens.

The bond between Shylock and Antonio was a legal one, and if Venice were to spare Antonio’s life and destroy the bond Venice’s reputation would be severely damaged. The courtroom sees shylock as an “unfeeling man”, but Shylock refuses to be intimidated and he is persistent that he wants his bond. At one point, Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats, twice the money Antonio was to pay back, but Shylock’s determination is shown with his eply: “If every ducat in six thousand ducats Were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond! Clearly, there is no way that Shylock will show mercy at this stage, but the Duke asks him “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none? ” This may seem quite ironic as the same question could be posed to Antonio, but when Shylock replies it is plain to see that Shylock does not think he is doing any wrong, and he demands a decision. The Duke is obviously in a difficult position because Shylock does have a bond and so he calls for Bellario, “a learned doctor” but instead, Balthazar (Portia in disguise) comes on his behalf.

Through out the courtroom scene Antonio’s behaviour has been patient and he is ready to face death if he can goodbye to Bassanio. An example of his self-pity is when he speaks to Bassanio, his close friend, and says: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, Meetest for death” The build up of dramatic tension continues in the trial scene as Shylock wets his knife, preparing to cut the pound of flesh. This shows how sure Shylock is that he will get his bond and it also adds to the underlying current of tension as the courtroom await a decision.

This action by Shylock makes him seem inhuman; he is happily anticipating the opportunity to murder someone. Elizabethan opinions on Jews would be satisfied, and it would seem that Shakespeare’s interpretation of a typical Jew was the same bloodthirsty image as the audience’s. This is then stressed by Gratiano’s insults towards Shylock in which he calls him a “damned, inexorable dog” and he also states that he is almost tempted to abandon his faith in Christianity and believe the ideas of Pythagoras, who was a philosopher who taught the belief of reincarnation.

Gratiano states that Shylock would become wolf after death, as his desires are “wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous”. Yet none of this affects Shylock, who would have greatly irritated the Elizabethan audience. He meets his match however in Portia. Upon her entrance in the courtroom she quite ignorantly states, “Then must the Jew be merciful”. She, of course, has the same view on Jewish people as the rest of the courtroom and when Shylock demands why he must be merciful, she tells not only Shylock, although her words are addressed to him, but the whole courtroom, about mercy.

This is the strongest plea of the trial scene and it is also very mportant because it shows that Portia is not just a beautiful woman, but an intelligent one too. She says that: “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes” She continues to use very strong pleas of how mercy is at it strongest when it is a quality shown by those in power, in this case Shylock. Shylock demands justice and so Balthazar points out to Shylock one of the key points in her speech: “Therefore Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That in the course of justice none of us Should see salvation” Balthazar tells Shylock that if we all received justice and no mercy none of us would go to Heaven as we all have sins- Jews and Christians. This is Shylock’s last chance to show mercy, take the money and be done with the situation but he will not turn back. He is very stubborn and to his delight Balthazar grants him is bonds. Shylock rejoices and pronounces how wise Balthazar is. Unknown to Shylock is the extent of Balthazar’s wisdom, as she has led him into a written trap.

Antonio and Bassanio say goodbye to each other as Antonio awaits his fate; he eems as though it really is the end for Antonio until Balthazar interrupts the proceedings: “Tarry a little; there is something else: This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”; Take then they bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods Are (by the laws of Venice) confiscate Unto the state of Venice” Suddenly, it is not Shylock who is shouting “O learned judge! but Gratiano. Balthazar finds another technicality to stop Shylock from taking the pound of flesh as he must take exactly one pound of flesh, o more or less, if not he will be executed and all his goods confiscated. Shylock changes his mind at this point and decides he wants to take the money instead now that he knows of the consequences if he does take the bond. Bassanio is willing to give Shylock the three thousand ducats but Balthazar will not let Shylock have it, as he has refused it in the open court.

Yet another law of Venice is brought to light and used against Shylock because, as he, an alien (not a citizen of Venice) has plotted to kill Antonio, a citizen, Antonio should be given half of his goods and the other half to the Duke. Antonio asks the Duke to waive the State’s share, and says he will hold his half-share in trust for Lorenzo and Jessica, provided that Shylock becomes a Christian and leaves his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica. Shylock accepts, claiming to be content and he leaves the courtroom a broken man.

His behaviour now is completely different to the start of the scene. He has lost his power, his wealth and most importantly, his religious freedom. Throughout the play Shylock is isolated and alone. He only has one friend, who is Tubal and his only relative is Jessica, but when Jessica elopes, taking the money and family jewels, we see him taunted y Christians and tortured by Tubal’s news. He, as a Jew cannot be a merchant yet he is abused because he is a usurer, and he is forced to live in a Ghetto along with the other Jews, a place he does not want to live.

Shakespeare’s use of language further alienates Shylock. Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English and his vocabulary included 30’000 words whereas today our vocabularies only run between 6’000 and 15’000 words. Shakespeare wrote the way he did for poetic and dramatic purposes, and he wrote in both prose (language without metrical structure and verse (poetry) and in “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock requently speaks in prose while the Christians use the iambic pentameter.

Shylock also speaks a lot less than Portia and Bassanio because they use long, flourishing and descriptive ways of talking while Shylock’s language is often blunt and he uses harsh words to describe things, such as his comparison of Antonio to a rat to be poisoned. Shylock has his own prose, and uses special Jewish vocabulary, which marks him as different and he constantly uses Hebrew names: Jacob, Abraham and Leah. However, there is more Christian language in “The Merchant of Venice” than in any other comedy, partly because of its story of the Jew.

Shakespeare also makes Shylock very anti-Christian and he mocks the New Testament. (The audience would take this very personally). Another way in which the Christian language is shown is the relation between the story of Bassanio coming to Antonio for forgiveness and the parable of the prodigal son. The audience would pick up on these different kinds of language used, as they do sound different. It would also please the audience because lesser characters spoke in prose, and they would believe that Shakespeare too saw the Jews as an inferior race.

But did he? Shylock’s downfall would have been greatly welcomed by the ast majority of Elizabethan society but from a contemporary point of view, “The Merchant of Venice” can be seen as a cleverly written satire, which effectively criticizes the anti-Semitic views of his time. One of the ways in which Shakespeare accomplishes this critique is by emphasizing Shylock’s character as a man rather than his identity as a Jew. What the play reveals is how some Christians are terrible men, as are some Jews.

But the genius of “The Merchant of Venice” is that it allows us see past the surface of the religious identity that defines Shylock the Jew; beyond that Shakespeare allows s to glimpse Shylock the man who hates and bleeds as does any Christian. Shylock proclaims this when he asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? ” Shakespeare’s genius gave the Elizabethan audience what they wanted but looking back we can see how this is very ironic and sarcastic in its tone towards anti-Semitism.

This Jew is no longer a caricature and though he remains the villain, the evil is on more than one character. Shylock is a paradox because he is both the bloodthirsty, ravenous wolf Gratiano described him as and also the human victim of abuse that makes his revenge understandable. With this in mind, I doubt that a modern audience would be glad of Shylock’s downfall. We would recoil from the hatred he expresses but we would sympathise once we hear of the way he is treated by Antonio.

Yet in the courtroom scene these mitigating circumstances were ignored and so Shylock did not receive a fair trial by modern day standards. This adds to a contemporary audience’s compassion towards Shylock and I think many people would find Shylock’s punishment too harsh. Religious freedom is taken for granted by many in the western world and I also think that many people would want Antonio to be given some ind of punishment.

We can see the man behind the murderer and although two wrongs don’t make a right, Shylock’s actions are understandable if we see him as a human being. So when can we call someone “uneducated”? In my opinion, a person with unjustified prejudices is educated, but with narrow-minded views. The most uneducated point of a person’s life is when they’re a child; when they are first born. Elizabethan society fed their children these views and so we cannot blame Antonio directly. Shylock may have been a “cut-throat” usurer but he was not a dog and did not deserve to be spat at.

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The Merchant of Venice. (2017, Oct 26). Retrieved from

The Merchant of Venice
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