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In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice it is important to notice that the title is not The Tragedy of the Merchant of Venice, but rather, just The Merchant of Venice. Although many people find it a rich tapestry of controversial topics, one must wonder how many of these weighty issues were intentional and how many are being projected upon the play by a modern audience. Shakespeare, above all else, was a hack. He was the Stephen King of his day, churning out plays at a breakneck pace. One must be skeptical, then, when one gets too deep into analysis of what is truly there and what is being conjured up by a contemporary reader. Certainly, many people have been moved to tears by Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Nonetheless, the play attempts to be whimsical and lighthearted, the main conflict being a romantic comedy, at best. The entire last act is capricious tedium about lost rings and Portia and Nerissa playing a stupid trick on their husbands, wildly juxtaposed out of place if one attempts to view the preceding court room scene as deadly serious proceedings rather than farcical comedy. Shylock need be neither a comic villain nor a tragic outcast; he is a means to an end. The audience’s interpretation of him most depends on how he is played.
To a sixteenth century audience, Shylock is probably quite funny. Dressed in traditional Judas Iscariot clothing and with exaggerated stereotypical, ethnically Jewish features, he was a clown at whom the audience was laughing at before he spoke a word. One can imagine him speaking with a funny / annoying accent and really playing up the comedic aspect to his character. Indeed, since the audience was most likely predominately anti-Semitic, they were not going to identify with a Jew, and were going to either hate him or laugh at him regardless. Many of his lines are also humorous, at least in a perverse (and decidedly non-politically correct) way. For instance, Shylock’s forecasts ill portents because he dreams of moneybags. For a people traditionally labeled as loving money, coming from Shylock this is a funny little jab. Along the same lines, when Jessica elopes, he laments his ducats and his daughter equally. There is no question whether it was meant humorously, when it was relayed through the play’s jokesters, Solario and Solanio. Though equivalent to the comedic styling of Al Jolson, one may not deny the jokes’ presence just because they make a more “sensitive” current audience uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, the point may be made that Shylock is a tragic outcast who is forced into his position. Surely, all of the other Christian characters treat him as a sub-human, kicking him, spitting at him, and cursing at him. If one is constantly harangued by individuals, would one (regardless of any religious faith) not eventually be embittered to them? When coupled with the business competition that exists between Antonio and Shylock, and how much of Shylock’s business Antonio steals for not charging interest, it is not surprising that he wishes to damage him. Karl Marx said, “It is not the consciousness of human beings which determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being which determines their consciousness.” A case may be made that Shylock has adopted the stereotypes forced upon him by his peers. If one’s era builds an archetype for one, one will strive to fulfill the persona. A comparable example is the fact that the homosexual community, while filled with the same diversity of any selected human community and really completely normal and indistinguishable from any other people one wishes to pick on, when engaged in parades and other such demonstrations, have adopted many stereotypes and prejudices that many direct at them, and in engaging in behavior that would make any Midwesterner blush, attempt to refute them through their practice. However, even if Shylock is a tragic individual who has been shafted by society and forced into his current position, or a flat, comedic dolt, it does not alter that he is indisputably the villain.
Is William Shakespeare anti-Semitic? As aforementioned, the play was not intended to be a tragedy. It ends happily, or at least was intended to. Everybody gets his girl, Antonio gets his life and his money, and everybody is merry. But what about Shylock? Shakespeare’s idea of a happy ending is not only for him to lose the totality of his property, but to be forced to convert to Christianity. This compulsory abandonment of one’s values most likely does not sit well with most present-day readers. Most of the other characters within the play believe it to be a fortuitous turn of events, though; most likely, a sixteenth century audience felt the same way. Shylock — understandably or not — pursued his revenge to the utmost extreme, demanding the life of Antonio. Is it truly justice to turn back on him with such vindictiveness? Does an eye for an eye not make the world go blind?
There are three possible answers to the motivation of Shakespeare. First, he was an anti-Semite. Everything should be interpreted for how it appears; Shylock’s behavior and his end are as they are because Shakespeare feels that he is a sub-human and deserves ill fortune. The second solution is that Shakespeare is engaging in social commentary. Most satirists are very subtle. Were they outright in their criticism, they would most likely be silenced. However, by speaking allegorically or “between the lines” they may make themselves understood carefully. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted on one level a story that a bigoted brute would appreciate, but would function on a second level for a wiser audience, and force them to consider their views regarding justice and prejudice. Although Shylock may be considered funny, perhaps the true joke is on those who laugh at him! Shylock is morally gray; however, his punishment still egregiously exceeds his crime. Perhaps it is that ambiguity that forces one to think about where one?s true position lies. A third supposition is that Shakespeare was neither anti-Semitic or non anti-Semitic. Is someone who tells a racist joke a racist? Is someone who uses a racial slur by default bad? If so, goodbye The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Invisible Man. Perhaps Shakespeare used Shylock as a means to an end. He needed an usurer; certainly, a Christian would have worked, but not as well as a Jew because he needed both someone who charged interest and someone who would have been antagonistic to Antonio. While there were Christian usurers, his audience probably expected a moneylender to be a Jew. Is it wrong to use archetypes because an audience expects it? Does a story involving a mad scientist make the author a Luddite? Shakespeare needed a villain and used Shylock. Shylock’s bad end may have been because his audience would not have accepted something more equitable to our modern viewpoint. Indeed, all of Shylock’s ill fortune may have been to please his audience, rather than his own personal viewpoint. Perhaps Shakespeare does not even care how Shylock is interpreted; he is there for the function he serves in the plot and everything else is extra. Again, the play is intended to be a light-hearted jaunt. Philosophical issues may have been simply an accident.
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