The play “The Merchant of Venice” was written by William Shakespeare some time between the late summer of 1596 and 1598. The play possesses several themes, firstly that of ‘love versus greed’. The play is a demonstration of the triumph of love and friendship over greed. Secondly, ‘mercy versus justice and the law’. This refers to the courtroom scene where Shylock is pleaded with to alter his adverse decision regarding Antonio and the pound of flesh even though law states he is fully entitled to justice.
The third theme is of ‘race and racial prejudice’. Even today, four centuries after the play was written, arguments still rage over the controversial anti-Semitic text that many fell should not be taught in schools. There are also accusations that the play is an attack on prejudice.
To fully understand the play and the controversy surrounding it, we must research into anti-Semitism in it’s historical context:-
Anti-Semitic views have existed for centuries. An early act of anti-Semitism occurred in England in the 13th century when Jews were accused on many trumped up charges of killing children.
Massacres of Jews occurred and eventually, in 1290, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England and were not allowed to return until the mid-seventeenth century. Therefore in Shakespeare’s time (16th century), England was a ‘Jew-free’ country. This was mirrored in some European countries, and in some cities (including Venice) Jews lived in ghettos, separate walled parts of the city which were locked at night. With this common prejudice and ignorance, Shakespeare’s occasional portrayal of Shylock as a stereotypical Jew (cruel, greedy etc) is perhaps understandable.
During Shakespeare’s time, the play was considered, by many, nothing more than a comedy. This shows vividly what the attitudes of Christians towards Jews were then. Also during this time, Christians could not, by law, lend money out at interest, however Jews could. This consequently meant that Jews made profit from Christians, which angered Christians greatly.
These anti-Semitic views, if not so strong, are still evident in this day and age with the constant fighting on the Gaza Strip between rebel Palestinians and Israeli military. Seldom does a month pass without hearing news of a car bomb exploding in Jerusalem or a little Jewish boy shot by a Hez Bolah ‘gorilla’. These racial tensions are not helped by the common ‘jokes’ about Jews, for example the crude American cartoon series ‘South Park’ where an eight-year-old Jewish boy, Kyal, is taunted by his ‘friends’ over his religious beliefs.
The character of Shylock demonstrates the stereotypical Elizabethan Jew. Hatred of Christians and the practice of usury (lending money out at interest). Although the latter is common place today, it was often frowned upon in Elizabethan times.
Over the centuries, the way in which Shylock has been viewed has changed dramatically, probably more than any other Shakespearian character. In the 18th century he was considered an ‘out-and-out villain’, whereas in the 19th century people began to concentrate on the wrongs suffered by Shylock, and it even became fashionable to finish the play at the end of the trial scene. Editions in modern theatre are less extreme. In each scene of the play where Shylock makes an appearance, Shakespeare wants the audience to judge him. The opinions he tries to force on the audience vary from scene to scene, and sometimes vary inside an individual scene.
We, the audience, first meet Shylock in act one scene three. In the two scenes prior to this, one and two, we learn that Bassanio, a Venetian gentleman, needs to borrow money from his good friend Antonio, the merchant of Venice, to impress a rich lady, Portia, whom he wishes to marry. However Antonio’s wealth is tied up in goods out at sea so they decide that they will ask Shylock for a loan.
The scene opens with Bassanio and Shylock discussing the loan, and both men seem content. However, when Antonio enters the scene Shylock’s mood switches. This is evident in his vicious aside:-
“How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian.”….
“If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.”
In Shylock’s aside, Shakespeare unveils his true hatred for Antonio and how he longs for revenge on him. In light of this the audience will view Shylock as a cruel and vindictive man.
However, later in the scene, after some debating of the loan, Shylock tells of how Antonio has mistreated him in the past:-
“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,”
“…you spat on me Wednesday last,”
Antonio’s response to these comments is:-
“I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.”
Here, Antonio makes it clear that he is glad of how he has treated Shylock, and expresses intentions to do it again.
With this information of Antonio’s anti-Semitic actions towards Shylock in the past, how will they react to the pound of flesh bond? Even considering Antonio’s mistreatment of Shylock in the past, the audience are likely to accept Shylock’s interpretation of the bond as a “merry sport” as there is nothing in the first two scenes to suggest other than a conventional comedy. Shylock indicates that the bond agreement is in the same spirit.
As the curtain falls on this scene, the audience, in most cases, will agree that Shylock has good reason to hate Antonio, and that he is more a victim than a cruel man.
The next scene of significance regarding Shylock is act two scene three, although Shylock himself is not present. It is a very brief scene in which Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, gives a letter to Launcelot, Shylock’s servant, for Lorenzo, a friend on Antonio who will elope with Jessica.
Jessica gives reasons for her elopement with Lorenzo:-
“I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so:
Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,”
“….ashamed to be my father’s child.”
Jessica acquaints us with her unhappiness at home, and, although expresses sorrow for leaving her father, states that she dislikes his morals (“manners”) and is ashamed to be his daughter.
Shakespeare, again, introduces reference to changing religion, when Jessica says:-
“If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.”
Here, Shakespeare introduces the idea that Jessica will become happy if she becomes a Christian, raising the controversial issue of race and racial prejudice.
With the combination of Jessica ‘running-off’ and eloping with Lorenzo, and Jessica changing her religion, Shakespeare creates an effective feeling of isolation for Shylock. His own daughter has, not only eloped with ‘the enemy’, but become one of them by turning Christian.
Even with Shylock absent from the scene, you help but feel sorry for him, as his ‘own flesh and blood’ has betrayed him. Therefore, in this scene, as in act one scene three, Shylock appears more of a victim than a vengeful man.
In act two scene six, Jessica, dressed as a boy, elopes with Lorenzo. Shylock, again not present is this scene, is dealt a further blow by his daughter, Jessica, who steals money and treasures from him before eloping with Lorenzo. In doing this Jessica, after just becoming a Christian, has broken two of the Ten Commandments, by failing to honour her father and stealing. Perhaps Shakespeare could be complementing the Jews, and Shylock by suggesting that Jessica has wronged because she has become a Christian.
Similarly to act two scene three, Shylock has been betrayed by his own people (Jews), and more to the point his own daughter. Jessica’s conflict of loyalty further emphasizes Shylock’s isolation and the audience will recognise this and it will reinforce their sympathy with him.
Act two scene eight, and a conversation between two of Antonio’s friends, Solanio and Salerio, which reveals several things. Through interpretation Solanio describes Shylock’s outraged reaction to Jessica eloping with Lorenzo and stealing his money and jewels:-
“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats, and my daughter!”
As this is a reported speech, the audience cannot be sure if it is true until later in the play. Obviously is it expected that Shylock will be upset, however, the interpretation from Solanio, at times with a hint of sarcasm, suggests that he only wants his daughter to return so he can get justice, and if this is proven to be the case later in the play, the audience will start to wonder if Shylock is worthy of their sympathy. So on this scene the audience will be caught in two minds, if they do not believe that Shylock reacted in the way that Solanio suggested, then they will still see Shylock as a victim, probably more so, but if they deem Solanio’s interpretation true, they will start to view Shylock less as a victim and more as a villain.
Shakespeare probably ‘toys’ with the audience like this on purpose so that they are intrigued, and want to find out which side of Shylock will show through later in the play. This refers to the ‘love versus greed’ theme, which does he care about more his daughter or his ducats?
Act three scene one is a key scene involving Shylock. The deadline for the bond repayment is fast approaching and the likelihood is that Antonio’s ships will be lost.
The scene opens with Solanio and Salerio discussing the bad fortunes of Antonio’s ships at sea, and then Shylock enters the scene. His first comments suggest that he is genuinely concerned about his daughter, and especially that her “flight” seems to be a source of entertainment for Solanio and Salerio, who draw a distinction between Shylock and his daughter, by comparing his blood to rhenish, a white wine:-
Shylock:- “I say my daughter is my flesh and blood.”
Salerio:- “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers,
than between jet and ivory; more between your
bloods, than there is between red wine and rhenish.”
At this, a very early stage of the scene, the audience will begin to think that Solanio’s interpretation of Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo was false, and indeed, will agree that Shylock values his daughter above his wealth.
After Solanio and Salerio tease Shylock, they inform him that one of Antonio’s ships has sunk. For Shylock, this adds insult to injury, his daughter has eloped with a Christian, become a Christian herself, stolen much of his valuables and now Antonio will be unable to pay back the loan. This annoys Shylock:-
“There I have another bad match, a bankrupt….”
“He was wont to lend money for a Christian
courtesy, let him look to his bond.”
Here, Shylock suggests, for the first time in the play, that he will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Salerio asks him:-
“…..what’s that good for?”
Shylock responds to the question viciously, and describes, in far more detail than in act one scene three, how Antonio has made him suffer in the past:-
“…..He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies, and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.”
Here, Shakespeare shows the side of Shylock as a victim very strongly, and goes on to make a point that people tend to forget amidst all the racial prejudice, Jews and Christians alike are both human beings:-
not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions?….”
“……..If you prick us do we
This heavy-hearted response portrays Shylock, and all Jews, as victims of racial prejudice, and consequently the audience will take pity on Shylock.
With the audience firmly on his side, Shylock reveals his plans regarding the bond, with reasons:-
“……………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. The villany
you teach me I will execute,”
Here, Shylock argues that if he goes ahead with the bond, and takes a pound of flesh from Antonio, it will be under the influence of Christians acting violently against him.
Tubal, Shylock’s colleague, enters the scene, he has been in Genoa searching for Jessica. He informs Shylock that he has not found her, this throws Shylock into a rage:-
“…Two thousand ducats in that, and other,
precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter
were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear.”
A sudden outburst from Shylock and the sympathy the audience had for him quickly evaporates. He has just proven Solanio’s interpretation correct, it now appears he values his money and jewels above his daughter. His eagerness for revenge also fuels the audience’ change in attitude.
This already negative attitude of the audience towards Shylock, created by Shakespeare, is made worse when Tubal confirms Antonio’s losses at sea:-
“What, what, what? Ill luck, ill luck?”
And goes to say:-
“I thank God, I thank God.”
Shylock is overjoyed at the news of Antonio’s losses. Tubal then informs Shylock that Jessica “spent in Genoa” and the time and amount; “one night fourscore ducats.” Shylock’s response to this is:-
“Thou stick’st a dagger in me. I shall never see my
Shylock’s response further emphasises the fact that he values money over his daughter. Turning the audience further against him.
Shylock then goes on to say how he will take pleasure in acting out the bond:-
“….I’ll plague him, I’ll torture
him. I am glad of it.”
This scene began well, as regards Shylock’s reputation with the audience, with the audience taking pity on him for the way Antonio has treated him in the past, and because he is subject to racial prejudice because he’s a Jew. He is seen by the audience as an outcast and a victim of anti-Semitism. However, his chilling comments about his daughter, his joy over Antonio’s losses, and his pleasure of plotting to act out the bond turn the audience strongly against him, and his vicious, cruel, greedy and revengeful side comes to the for.
Act three scene three sees Antonio make a last, and as it turns out, useless plea to Shylock. Shylock made it clear in act three scene one that he would demand the forfeit of the bond, and Antonio is unsuccessful at persuading him otherwise. There is no reason, technically speaking, why Shylock should not demand the forfeit of the bond, it is “the course of law” Antonio admits. However, it raises one of the themes of the play, mercy versus justice. Shylock shows that there is no mercy for Antonio in his heart:-
Antonio:- “I pray thee hear me speak.”
Shylock:- “I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.”
For the audience, this scene is merely a reinforcement of their disliking of Shylock, as his cruel and greedy side comes through strongly again.
Act four scene one, and the court room scene. Antonio is brought to trial so that Shylock may claim the forfeit of his bond. The Duke and Antonio’s friends plead with Shylock, and at one point Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats, double the loan given to Antonio. Shylock’s rejection of these pleas confirms his decision on the ‘mercy versus justice’ theme, he wants justice, not an audience pleasing choice.
Even though everyone in the court is against Shylock, other than himself, it looks as though he will get his way and will be granted the forfeiture of the bond. But then Portia enters the court. She is disguised as a doctor of law, Shylock has been tricked. The audience will pick up on this and initially will be glad as it could mean a cancellation of the bond, against Shylock’s wishes.
Portia’s first actions are to, like the Duke, plead with Shylock for mercy:-
“Then must the Jew be merciful.”
Shylock’s response to this is:-
“On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”
Portia’s responds with:-
“The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed,”
Here, Portia tells Shylock that if he gives mercy, both he and Antonio will be rewarded. Later in her speech she also calls mercy “an attribute to God himself.” This carefully structured reasoning from Portia is not nearly enough to persuade Shylock. At this point, Shakespeare wants the audience to despise Shylock more than at any other part of the play. This is because next, Portia grants Shylock his demand of the forfeiture of the bond. Shakespeare has built up the hatred for Shylock in the audience for this moment.
However, Portia demands to inspect the bond, and on doing so finds a fault in it. She realises this just before the bond forfeiture will take place, and by this time Shylock, and everyone else in the court, is convinced that the verdict is final. Portia states:-
“Tarry a little, there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood,”
“One drop of Christian blood, they land and
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.”
Portia has told Shylock that in taking a pound of flesh, he must not shed a single drop of blood or his possessions will become the property of the state of Venice. At this point, Shakespeare will want his audience to be happy at the rejection of the bond, although he will want them to still see Shylock as a cruel person for his evil ways earlier in the play, and earlier in this scene.
However, Portia deals Shylock another blow. She announces that he cannot have his money either, by law, as he rejected it openly in the court:-
“He hath refused it in the open court.
He shall have merely justice and his bond.”
For the audience, this will fuel their amusement at Shylock’s misfortune. Shakespeare will want them to feel that Shylock deserves the rejection of the money, again for his evil actions earlier in the play.
The audience are now satisfied, but the Christians in the court are not. Portia tells Shylock:-
The law hath yet another hold on you.
….If it be proved against an alien
That by direct, or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half of his goods,….”
Portia tells Shylock, whom she calls an alien, that if he has attempted to kill a citizen (Antonio), the victim is entitled to half of his belongings.
Finally, Antonio is asked if he can give Shylock any mercy. He says that he wants the fine of half of Shylock’s goods cancelled, it appears Antonio is showing Shylock mercy, and that Shakespeare could perhaps be demonstrating that Christians have qualities that Jews do not (mercy), but he then demands something else of Shylock:-
“He presently become a Christian.”
For the first time in the scene, and at the end of Shylock’s presence, Shakespeare wants the audience to feel sorry for Shylock. He has been forced to change his religion. Back in Elizabethan times religion was very strong, it was the absolute truth, and to ask someone to change their beliefs was horrific. For Shylock it may as well have been the death penalty. In a grossly unfair trial, with a fake doctor of law, and everyone else on Antonio’s side anyway, Shylock, in the end, comes across as a victim of racial prejudice, and this is what Shakespeare wanted to demonstrate.