Written sometime in between 1596 – 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as a “Christian comedy.” It is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved. The Merchant of Venice is constructed around opposite value systems or worldviews. One side is touting the values of Christian generosity, as in Portia’s speech during the trial. This speech is the essence of Shakespeare’s message, mercy is close to God in both human action (or “flesh”) and in spirit. It is love of one’s friends, compassion for those in difficulty and a willingness to forgive past wrongs that humanity achieves a humble, reverence for God’s will.
Shylock, representing the opposing view, is a character of hard-heartedness and evil materialism. Right before Portia’s mercy speech, the Duke of Venice highlights the contrast between “Christian” mercy and the moneylender’s stance by describing Shylock as “A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram or mercy.” Shylock discussing his hatred of Antonio, “I hate him for he is a Christian.” Shylock, then, has two reasons for hating Antonio—his religion and, more importantly to Shylock, his status as a competitor. Antonio’s refusal to lend out money for interest has damaged Shylock’s business, which is why Shylock hopes to use this opportunity to avenge himself upon Antonio.
In his own interpretation of his hostility toward Antonio, personal greed and racial/religious bias are combined. Shylock is presented as the stereotypical Jew. In a Christian society like Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, Jews were viewed as being outside God’s grace.
Throughout the play, there are some direct associations between Shylock and the ungodly or Satanic.
In The Merchant of Venice, the characters first impulse is to categorize one another on the basis of racial and religious characteristics. The battle between good and evil, Judaism and Christianity are significant of the era The Merchant of Venice was written in. Jews had been officially banned from England for three centuries. There remained a hatred and distrust of the Jewish community by the Christians. As such, Shylock is treated as an outsider.
What did Shakespeare mean by Christian? What did he mean by Jew? Kirschbaum, in Shylock in the City of God, contends that there were no Jews in Shakespeare’s community and therefore the Jew he created is one of folklore and legend. The tales described the Jew as an anti-Christian, usurious, cruel monster. This is the stereotyped figure that Shakespeare used to create for Shylock. These were the traits which his spectators would expect in any stage Jew. “Shylock would immediately be recognized as alien to the City of God, the ideal Christian community of the Middle Ages—and of the Reformation too, as Zurich and Geneva witness.” (Kirshbaum, 1962)
Although the depiction of Shylock, the Jew, is stereotypical, it is probable that Shakespeare portrayed the belief that was present in his society. Kirshbaum’s suggestion of folklore leads us to conclude that it is an inaccurate picture. In the sense that it is stereotypical, it is inaccurate, but it is accurate of the era it was written. The Jewish community was viewed as anti-Christian and as a threat to Christianity. Shakespeare portrays the Jew as an alien in their society. Shylock, noting their distrust, rationalizes their Christian hatred of immorality as hatred of his being Jewish.
Cohen, in The Jew and Shylock, contends that The Merchant in Venice is an anti-Semitic work not simply due to the characterization of Shylock but in the way it equates “Jewishness” with wickedness. Cohen defines an anti-Semitic work of art as one that portrays Jews in a way that makes them objects of antipathy to readers and spectators—objects of scorn, hatred, laughter, or contempt. Further, he notes the repetitiveness of the term “Jew” in the play, 74 times, compared to Shylock being used 17 times, with the term Jew always being followed by negative connotations. “If the play defines Christianity as synonymous with tolerance and kindness and forgiveness, it defines Jewishness in opposite terms. The symbol of evil in The Merchant of Venice is Jewishness, and Jewishness is represented by the Jew.” (Cohen, 1996)
Shakespeare could have been anti-Semitic and thus could be the very reason he wrote The Merchant of Venice, or he could have been a liberal of the times, choosing to point out the obvious scorn and disdain that people had for one another based on their faith, and the result to human beings as a result. Shakespeare may have written this play as a way to liberate the Jewish community and remind the Christian community of its faith based hypocrisy. Perhaps Shakespeare created the character Shylock to portray the effect of prejudice and racism on an individual.
Shylock, by the end of the play, has done all that he said he would not. Shylock also makes a comment about the “hard dealings” of Christians, teaching them not to trust anyone. While this may be true of Antonio and Bassanio, it is also true of Shylock, who loans money at interest in order to make a profit. The racist part of Shylock’s hatred makes him no different from the Italians, who hate and mistreat Shylock for his religious beliefs.
The courtroom scene of illustrates all of the significant aspects of Shylock’s character as well as the treatment he receives. Prior to Shylock’s entrance, the duke describes Shylock as “a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy” (ll. 3-6). The duke’s racism in this statement is reflected in the derogatory comments of Antonio and Gratiano later in the scene. When Shylock enters, the duke does make one last attempt to reason with him by expecting Shylock to show mercy. He cannot give any reason for this insistence, save that he does not like Antonio, and they have a contract. While this is seen as cruel, Shylock has already pointed out that no one in the play has justified ill treatment of him, and that their dislike is the only motivation for it.
Venice represents the realistic, civilized world that is supposedly governed by Christian values. However, the Christians are shown to be hypocritical in their treatment of Shylock. For all his purported charity and virtue, Antonio discriminates against the Jew, ultimately forcing Shylock to renounce Judaism and embrace Christianity. Although accepted by the Venetians on an economic level, Shylock remains an outsider in the city. His actions are governed by Judaism and the Old Testament rather than Christian values. Shylock’s desire for revenge against Antonio is therefore a retributive action sanctioned by his faith. Shylock has never received mercy or charity from the Christian.
Shylock becomes the one “commoner” among Shakespeare’s great characters. In him he has created a subject, one of the governed class, a private individual asking for his right. Shylock is thus an alien in the world of Shakespeare’s creation. It is not essential that he should be a Jew at all. He could have been a Christian commoner, even as such he would be a provocative character, whom the patricians and the officials and governor of the Republic would be permitted to misuse at their pleasure. (Sinsheimer, 84)
The Merchant of Venice has been considered a problem by many due to its combination of comic, tragic, and romantic elements as well as its treatment of racial and religious differences. The way in which the merchant Antonio borrows money from Jewish moneylender, Shylock in order to assist his friend Bassanio. Bassanio borrows the money from Antonio in order to finance his pursuit of Portia, the heiress of Belmont, whom he wishes to marry. Described by some to be a romantic comedy, The Merchant of Venice explores darker issues as well, such as the treatment of Shylock, who is portrayed as a stereotypically greedy Jew and a social outcast. For attempting to enforce his contract with Antonio, a contract stipulating that a pound of flesh be removed from Antonio for failure to repay his loan, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.
The main difference between the Christian characters and Shylock appears to be a difference of values. The Christian values human relationships over business ones, whereas Shylock is described as being only interested in money. The Christian characters certainly view the matter this way. Merchants like Antonio lend money free of interest and put themselves at risk for those they love. Shylock agonizes over the loss of his money. He appears to value his money at least as much as his daughter. When we see Shylock in Act III, scene 1, he seems hurt that his daughter sold a ring that was given to him by his dead wife before they were married than he is by the loss of the ring’s monetary value. Some human relationships do indeed matter to Shylock more than money. Moreover, his insistence that he have a pound of flesh rather than any amount of money shows that his resentment is stronger than greed.
The Christian characters are sometimes at odds with their values. Portia and Bassanio are believed to be in love. But what brought them together was Bassanio need for money to pay his debts. Bassanio even asks Antonio to look at the money he lends Bassanio as an investment, though Antonio insists that he lends him the money solely out of love. Bassanio is anxious to view his relationship with Antonio as a matter of business rather than of love. Shylock argues that Jews are human beings just as Christians are, but Christians such as Antonio hate Jews simply because they are Jews. Even though the Christian characters may talk about mercy, love, and charity, they are not always consistent in how they display these qualities. (Astley, 1979)
Shylock claims that he is simply applying the lessons taught to him by his Christian neighbors; this claim becomes a part of his character and his argument in court. Shylock in his first appearance, conspires to harm Antonio, creates a plan composed of the insults and injuries Antonio has inflicted upon him in the past. Shylock’s reasoning, is simply applying what years of abuse have taught him. Not all of Shylock’s actions can be blamed on poor teachings, and one could argue that Antonio understands his own culpability in his near execution. With the trial’s conclusion, Antonio demands that Shylock convert to Christianity, but no other punishment, despite threats of fellow Christians. After the demand has been made and agreed to, Shylock leaves the court, stating he is ill. It may be that the idea of conversion is physically repugnant to him. Given his treatment at the hands of the Christians, it may very well be.
Perhaps The Merchant of Venice has been overanalyzed. Perhaps each character is not representative of Shakespeare’s overall goal. If the analysis of the play was based on the overall picture, it may appear quite different. Shakespeare, living in an era of change, when the traditions and morals of Christianity were first coming into question, may have created a story that would introduce to his audience the notion that Jews could exist within society, without undo harm to the rest of the community. Shakespeare could have been exposing his audience to new ideas.
Jews suffer bigotry and other forms of mistreatment because of their religion and race. Christians alienate Shylock simply because he is a Jew. In ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times, Jews almost always encountered prejudice from non-Jews around them. Scholars are divided on whether Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, was attempting condemn anti-Semitism by sympathizing with Shylock or approve of anti-Semitism by ridiculing Shylock. It may well be that Shakespeare was simply holding a mirror to civilization to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.
Close scrutiny of the play reveals that Shakespeare wrote it to condemn the moral and ethical values of ignorant Christians, not to condemn Jews. The Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice assess their own worth and the worth of others according to faulty standards. They believed that money, position, and social affiliations are the sum of an individual. It was the Christians who force Shylock into money lending; it is they who seed his anger and desire for revenge. Shylocks behavior is reactive behavior. He makes his living through usury because it is the only way he can compete in The City of God. He accumulates wealth because he believes it will promote his security and independence in a hostile Christian world.
…….. Shakespeare’s opinion about Jews is profoundly important to writers, teachers, actors, historians, social scientists, members of the clergy–indeed to every thinking human being–because his influence.
Astley, Russell. “Through a Looking Glass, Darkly: Judging Hazards in The Merchant of Venice.” Ariel 10, no. 2 (April 1979): 17-34
Cohen, Walter. The Jew and Shylock. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1980.
Kirshbaum, Leonard. Shylock in the City of God. Character and Characterization in Shakespeare. Wayne State University Press. 1962.
Sinsheimer, Hermann. Shylock the History of a Character. Benjamin Blom. 1963.