Merchant of Venice Essay (Christians and Jews )

merchant of venice / Shakespeare / shylock / character / anti-semitism / jews / christianity

‘Merchant of Venice’ by Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice, a play by William Shakespeare written from 1596 to 1598 is most remembered for its dramatic scenes inspired by its main character Shylock. However, merchant Antonio, instead of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, is the play’s most famous character. Although frequently staged today, the play presents a great deal of controversy due to its central anti-Semitic themes. In actual fact, the play holds a strong stance on anti-Semitism.

Over the Elizabethan era English society had been regarded as anti-Semitic until the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Jews, often depicted as avaricious usurers, were hideously caricaturized with bright red wigs and hooked noses, and so were mainly associated with evil, greed and deception.

In the 1600s in Venice Jews were required to put on red hats as a symbol of their identity. Failure to adhere to this requirement resulted in the death penalty. The then Jews lived in a ghetto which was protected by Christians for their own safety. For such protection Jews should have paid their guards, and Shakespeare’s is regarded as a vivid example of such anti-Semitic tradition.

More than that, critics argue that Shakespeare intended to contrast the vengefulness of a Jew lacking religious grace to comprehend mercy with the mercy of the main Christian characters. At that Shakespeare showed Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity as it redeemed Shylock both from his unbelief and his willingness to kill Antonio. Therefore, the anti-Semitic trends domineering in Elizabethan England were shown by the playwright.

Despite Shakespeare’s genuine intentions, anti-Semites used the play throughout the play’s history. The 1619 edition ‘With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew…’ described how Shylock was perceived by the English public. Later on, the Nazis used the usurious Shylock for the purposes of their propaganda. Subsequently, there have been many other instances in the English literature prior to the 20th century depicting the Jew as a cruel, tight-fisted, avaricious and lecherous outsider “tolerated only because of his golden hoard”.  

Shakespeare had deliberately emphasized Shylock’s painful status in Venetian society. Shylock’s celebrated ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ speech redeems him and even makes him a tragic figure:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. 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 villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (cited from Act III, scene I)

Herewith, Shylock claims that he does not differ from the Christian characters, however ends the speech with a tone of revenge: ‘if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ At that, many regard Shylock’s words as his acquired desire to revenge from the Christian characters: “If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction”.

Shakespeare’s intentions outlined in the central conflicts can therefore be perceived in radically different terms which prove the subtlety of Shakespeare’s characterizations.


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