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Few Shakespearean plays have aroused such controversy and debate throughout the centuries, as has The Merchant of Venice. This potentially tragic play masks itself in comedy, giving its audience a glance at the inherent social prejudices of Renaissance Europe. But just at the moment when the audience receives this glance, any seriousness of thought is quickly snatched from them, and apathy is allowed to remain as laughter embellishes their social evils.
It is difficult to determine Shakespeare’s intent in the creation of this play. Is it anti-Semitic or does it criticize anti-Semitism? Or does it merely represent the anti-Semitism of the day without commentary from Shakespeare? Some critics see Shylock as the villain and a pure characterization of the period opinion of Jews. While others view him as the victim, receiving a level of sympathy from Shakespeare. Even though we would like to think of Shakespeare’s genius to be beyond such prejudice thinking, when taking in all considerations, most critics tend to lean towards the belief that Shakespeare was simply following the anti-Semitic tradition of that period. When understanding both the historical context of his play and the preconceived notions of his audience, it is easier to believe that Shakespeare was making no attempt to expose social ills; he was merely playing into them. We must also remember that while we tend to grasp deeper meanings and understandings as modern readers, The Merchant of Venice was not originally intended to be read, but acted. As a result, it is most probable that the intense seriousness of the play could barely be detected when performed during Shakespeare’s time. This can be easily assumed from what we know of the Shakespearean theatre and from the simple fact that the play itself is listed as a comedy.
In order to bring validity to this judgment, there needs to be a solid understanding of both the cultural opinion of Jews, and the historical events preceding the writing of The Merchant of Venice. Among the majority of European society, Jews were not only persecuted outcasts, but they were feared as agents of the devil, “The Jew was a numinous figure, freighted more like the image of the vampire than some mere social stereotype such as one might have of a hillbilly, a spic, a bohunk, or a nerd” (Myers 33). Legends created a very devilish depiction of Jews within the minds of the gentile nations. The Catholic Church also did much to create and maintain this false image, “Church sermons nevertheless proclaimed Jews to be ?hard-hearted blasphemers who were also vain, ostentatious, and deceitful,’ and encouraged the association of the ‘devil Jew’ with avarice” (Rosenheim 157). As scholar Hyam Maccoby has written, “Many Christians came to believe Jews had cloven feet and a tail, and that they suffered from an innate bad smell and from diseases of the blood, for which they sought remedies in vampirism. The hook nose and funny accent were just details” (Myers 34). Finally, as G.K. Hunter insists, the Renaissance perception of Jewishness can only be historically understood as a morally corrupt condition, “which rejected Christ and chose Barabbas, rejected the Savior and chose the robber, rejected the spirit and chose the flesh, rejected the treasure that is in heaven and chose the treasure that is on earth” (Rosenheim 157).
Aside from the already harsh preconceived prejudices against the Jews, there were also many historical and social events preceding Shakespeare’s writing of The Merchant of Venice, which could have caused even more anti-Semitism within the minds of its viewers. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England under the reign of Edward I, and they were not readmitted until 1656 (Myers 33). Throughout the period that Jews were officially expelled from England, legends, folklore, and ballads maintained the negative image of the Jew. Another mode in which this image of the Jew was transmitted was through medieval mystery plays performed churches and in public squares at regular times during the year. In these plays, many of the villains were Jewish and were satirized with clownish costumes, such as a bottle nose and a red fright wig (Myers 34). But anti-Semitism reached its height during the decade preceding the writing of The Merchant of Venice. Two events caused this surge in prejudice. The first event was the popularity of Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta (1592). In this play, Barabas, the Jew (note the Biblical reference), is the very wicked, scheming, evil villain of the play. Obviously, this play only continued to feed the anti-Semitism of the period, “The Jew of Malta became the biggest theatrical hit until that time, and fed the anti-Jewish hysteria that prompted the mob to laugh so heartily at Lopez on the gallows” (Myers 34). The “Lopez” spoken of in this passage is Dr. Ruy Lopez, who was tried and executed for allegedly attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth of England (Myers 32-33). This was the second event that caused an anti-Jewish uproar in England. In Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, Gratiano says to Shylock,
Thy currish spirit
Govern’d a wolf, who, hanged for human
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
Infused itself in thee.
Most critics now believe this to be a reference to Dr. Lopez’s execution by hanging. Lopez’s name was frequently spelled “Lopus,” which is easily punned with the Latin word for wolf (Myers 32). It is not a stretch to assume that this allusion would have been clearly understood by Shakespeare’s audience, bringing harsh reality and deeply imbedded prejudice to the character Shylock. Together, the social preconceptions and historical treatment of the Jews preceding the first performance of The Merchant of Venice did much to influence the audience’s reception of Shylock, and whether or not Shakespeare had intended to write an anti-Semitic play, it was sure to be received and understood in that light. From this point of reference, it is not difficult for us to assume that Shakespeare had an understanding of the social prejudices of his culture upon writing The Merchant of Venice, knowing full well that this would create an anti-Jewish tone within his play, especially for the commoners. But, can it be possible that there exists a duel purpose in this play? Feeding the audience’s desire for the stereotypical, villainous Jew would have made the play great entertainment for anyone simply looking for a good laugh. But what if Shakespeare did intend for those on the political and intellectual level to receive a deeper and more disturbing message from Merchant? Such is my proposal.
The setting of the play is in Venice for a very specific purpose, it provided an alternative social prototype. Venice was a town of trade and mercantilism, making it the most wealthy city in Renaissance Europe. Because it was a town of traders, “Venice was full of foreigners: Turks, Jews, Arabs, Africans, and Christians of various nationalities and denominations” (Maus 1081). This diverse society made it the perfect location for Shakespeare’s two ethnic plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, “Venice thus provided Shakespeare with an example- perhaps the only example in sixteenth-century Europe- of a place where people with little in common culturally might coexist peacefully solely because it was materially expedient to do so” (Maus 1083). It made a very believable setting for characters of exotic ethnicity, such as Shylock and Othello, considering that both Jew and Moor were exiled from England and the greater part of Europe. These exotic characters not only appealed to curiosity of the audience, but the apparent “devilishness” of these foreigners also brought an element of fear and heightened anticipation to the plays, such as a modern day “thriller” movie would.
In describing the Venetian scene, there was never the slightest implication that these foreigners were accepted by the Christian society. Even though Jews were allowed in Venice, they were not necessarily welcome, “there was the need for the Jew’s services on the one hand, and the contempt for his person, on the other” (Picker 174). Jews in Venice were denied many of the rights that local Christians enjoyed. For example, they were not allowed to inhabit the same communities as the Christians, which tended to ostracize them from the nicer parts of the city. In 1516, as the Jewish population continued to grow, the Christian Venetians responded to the threat of their growing presence by legislating their confinement to a specified district called the geto nuovo, from which the word “ghetto” originated (Picker 174). A safe distance away from Christian homes, the Jewish heterodoxy was no longer a threat, yet in the marketplace, loans from Jewish usurers were highly coveted by the Christians, “Hence, the very layout of Venice reproduced the Christians’ paradoxical desire to embrace desperately needed Jewish money and simultaneously shun the Jews who possessed it” (Picker 174).
After having a thorough understanding of the foundations on which Merchant was written, we can take a closer look within the play itself. In Merchant, we are first introduced to the shrewd, clever Shylock in his dialogue with Bassanio and Antonio when they approach him with the sole purpose of taking out a loan of three thousand ducats.
Shylock: Three thousand ducats?well.
Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three months.
Shylock: For three months?well.
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.
Shylock: Antonio shall become bound?well.
Bassanio: May you stead me? Will you pleasure me? Shall I know your answer?
Shylock: Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound.
Bassanio: Your answer to that.
Shylock: Antonio is a good man. (1.3.1-11)
In this passage, Shylock displays his resentment toward the treatment he had previously received from Antonio and Bassanio by cleverly manipulating their dialogue. He uses repetition in order to both entice Bassanio and in order to defy Bassanio’s attempts to impose limits on their communication, “Through pauses, repetition, and a final pun on the moral and economic connotations of “good.” Shylock…disturbs and challenges Bassanio by remaining linguistically and economically unengageable” (Picker 175).
Once Antonio enters the scene, the subtle insubordination shifts to outright defiance. Antonio enters having little desire to speak directly to Shylock, only wanting to use him for his money; asking Bassanio, “Is he yet possessed/ How much ye would?” (1.3. 61-2). Picker suggests that this odd comment is actually a direct attack on Shylock in two differing ways, “First, it suggests a low pun on the Jew’s supposed “possession” by the devil. This gibe is consistent with Antonio’s caustic remark about Shylock later in the scene, that the ‘devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ (95). Second, in his question, Antonio marginalizes Shylock by speaking about him in the third person despite his presence onstage” (Picker 176). But Shylock refuses to be ignored and interrupts with the purpose of having his presence acknowledged.
Following our introduction to the Jew, we are privileged to see his craftiness at work, as he again manipulates the conversation in order to place himself on top. Shylock does this through his Jacob and Laban discourse in lines 68-72.
Shylock: When Jacob grazed his uncle Laban’s sheep?
This Jacob from our holy Abram was,
As his wise mother wrought in his behalf,
The third possessor, ay, he was the third–
In this passage, Shylock’s mastery over the conversation is once again demonstrated as he, “subtly twists this double meaning to remove the negative connotation from “possession” and align himself with the patriarchs. Thus he ingeniously suggests that each patriarch we not “possessed” by evil because of his Judaism, but, quite the opposite, a “possessor” of God’s promise” (Picker 177).
What are the immediate impressions we receive from Shylock in his first scene? He is stereotypically Jewish, through and through. His character does not budge for an instant from being a greedy, cunning, clever, prideful Jew. What about Antonio and Bassanio? Most would say that their characteristics do not line up very well with the Christian ideal of “loving their enemy,” as Christ has commanded them to. But as scholars have warned, “making the Christians bad cannot make Shylock good” (Rosenheim 157). My point though, is not to make Shylock necessarily good, but to show that Shakespeare was displaying a very disturbing social ill to his more intellectual crowd while maintaining a simple plot for the commoners. He is using Shylock, a pure Jew through and through, to display the ugliness of our human nature. And this can be best done through a neutral character, he is not trying to make him inherently good or bad, he is simply exposing the fact that the Jew is inherently human.
This understanding of Shylock resonates throughout the play’s famous “I am a Jew” speech in Act II, scene 1, lines 55-69 . Shylock: 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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.
Once again, the significance of his words is practically stolen from him as Salerio and Solanio mock his passionate dialogue. This demeaning mockery serves two purposes. For the commoners, it maintains Shylock’s position in the play (and in their culture) as a Jewish clown, allowing their disgust for him to mount with every insult hurled by Salerio and Solanio. But for those looking for meaning, this scene introduces Shylock outside of his Jewish heritage, as true member of the human race, “Shylock speaks not only of Jewish experience, but of human experience. In doing so, he confronts Salerio and Solanio with what, for them, must seem a frightening prospect: that, despite his religious and cultural identity, he shares with them a fundamental humanity” (Picker 179).
Shortly following this plea for equality, Shylock’s intimate conversation with Tubal assists in further humanizing him by giving insight to his grief.
Tubal: One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3.1. 111-16)
In this conversation we can see Shylock confessing his anguish over Jessica, and his devotion to his wife Leah, this in turn “enables Shylock to appear as more of an individual human being and less a stereotypical menacing villain to us” (Picker 179).
Quickly after this glimpse of the human side of Shylock, we return to a more villainous Jew than ever before. In the first scene with Shylock, his resentful tone and bitterness is obviously restrained, but once Antonio is behind bars, he no longer feels any need to restrain himself.
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. I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool,
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
I’ll have no speaking; I will have my bond. (3. 3. 11-17)
With a huge shift in power dynamics being displayed here, the roles have been reversed. Shylock is the stifler and bond seeker, and the merchant is the oppressed servant. At this point Shylock is seen as a man who is, “acutely aware of his subservient role in Venice and preoccupied with how to thwart those who have relegated him to that position” (Picker 181). All Shylock desires is justice, and in his perception, justice is served through the reception of his bond. Although this appears extremely cruel and merciless, it is also completely Jewish. Jews live by the law and die by the law, and they demand justice be administered to all. Shakespeare is remaining consistent with Shylock, he is a pure Jew, neither good nor bad. Once again this consistency in Shylock does two things: feed the stereotype, therefore pleasing the Jew-hating crowd, and reveal the humanity of Shylock.
No other moment in the play reveals the depths of Shylock’s humanity than in the court scene. From early on in the scene the Duke begins to belittle Shylock, communicating to him how the Christian community will triumph over the outsider. He hints at this notion when he tells Shylock, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (4.1. 34).
But Shylock does not shy away from his strong Jewish belief in justice, and he will have his bond. But before he knows it, the stakes have turned against him again, and the very law that he believed would save him, ends up condemning him instead. He is completely stripped of his power, livelihood, and ultimately his identity. In the end, his forced conversion does anything but enlighten him the glories of Christianity, on the contrary, “it sickens him to silence” (Picker 184). In desperate need to reach closure, the Venetians and Belmontians, “have attempted to overcome an obstacle to community at a terrible price. Denying Shylock his dignity, the Christians have mercilessly victimized him” (Picker 184).
Shylock disappears from the play never to return, but his presence and shame is detected throughout the remainder of the play. Most Shakespearean comedies end with some form of celebration and excitement, but not The Merchant of Venice. There is no jubilee, no festivity, and no joy, only a forced closure with an unsure ending. Jessica’s apparent sensitivity to her father’s treatment doesn’t allow the intuitive observer to forget the cruelty he suffered. But this is the deeper meaning. On the surface, justice seemed to prevail. The villain was punished and the lovers live happily ever after…or so it seems. Shakespeare ultimately ends the play with a question mark and asks his audience to see in it what they to desire to see. And this is what conjures up so much debate today. Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic, or was he showing sympathy towards the treatment of Jews? My answer is simple, both.
Bluestone, Stephen. “Shakespeare and the Jews in Early Modern England.” Sewanee Review 105 (1997): 10-14.
Edelman, Charles. “Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” Explicator 60 (2002): 124-127.
Maus, Katherine Eisaman. ” Forward to ?The Merchant of Venice.'” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. 1081-1089.
Myers, William. “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews.” Commentary 101 (1996): 32-38.
Picker, John. “Shylock and the Struggle for Closure.” Judaism 43 (1994): 173- 190.
Rosenheim, Judith. “Allegorical Commentary in the Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Studies 24 (1996): 156- 211.
Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 1997. 1090-1145.
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