Merchant Of Venice Essay, Research Paper
Does Shakespeare present anti-Semitism in the
play, The Merchant Of Venice?
At the time when Shakespeare wrote the play, The Merchant Of Venice, people s feelings and views towards other races and societies would have been very different to the views in the world we live in today. People would not have been politically correct and they would not have been ashamed of the fact that they were prejudice. A good example of this is when the Moroccan prince talks to Portia for the first time and with the very first thing he says, Mislike me not for my complexion , he is trying to excuse the fact that he is black and apologising for it. This shows us how people felt about people who were different from themselves. The hatred between Jews and Christians had been there for hundreds of years and as he was writing for his audience he probably chose a Jewish character because English people hated the Jews. I hate him for he is a Christian , this outlines perfectly the feelings between Jews and Christians at the time. Shylock and Jessica are the only two Jewish characters in the play but they are both very important characters and are an integral part of the play. Anti-Semitism is not the most important theme of the play and it isn t what the play is about. The main theme of the play is the hatred between Antonio and Shylock and the fact Antonio is a Christian and Shylock a Jew helps this along.
The play is set in Venice, in Italy, which is a Christian country. Because of this the play mainly consists of Christians, Shylock (along with Jessica) is the only Jew in the play, and as I have just discussed the views in those times and the friction between Jews and Christians there is a very explosive situation here where there is going to be a lot said and done. You would think that there would be a lot of prejudice shown towards Shylock, and there is. Almost every character in the play says something bad against him at some point in the play. The fact that he is a Jew seems to be the main reason why people hate him when the play is first looked at for throughout derogatory comments are made about his religion and the Jewish rites and customs that he upholds. For example, throughout he is referred to simply as, the Jew , by almost all the characters and is even named this way by Jessica, my father Jew . By calling him Jew they show that they do not look pass this Jewish person to see what he is like they simply take it for granted that he is not a nice person simply because he is a Jew which is a clear definition of prejudice and proves that prejudice is present in the play. They also use the word Jew as if it is an insult in itself, almost as if he is sub-human and that he doesn t warrant enough humanity to be called by his name. There are also other signs of this depiction of inhumanity elsewhere in the play, the dog Jew , is spoken by Antonio and by saying this he compares Shylock to an animal as if he is not good enough to be human. Antonio admits throughout the play that he hates Shylock, not only because he is a money lender but also because he is a Jew, To spit on thee again , he persecutes him and compares him to the devil, The devil can cite scripture for his purpose , he compares him and his Jewishness to the devil as if there is nothing holy about his religion. He tells Shylock that he will keep on doing this, I am as like to call thee so again .
It may appear that these people hate Shylock just because he is a Jew but when his character is really looked at it could be seen otherwise. The people in the play that know him, such as Jessica and Launcelot Gobbo should know him because have been close to him and seen what he is like so they should have the most reliable opinions of him. Launcelot works for Shylock and he knows him quite well and he also has a very strong opinion of him, the very devil incarnation , he obviously dislikes him because he is not a nice person, you may tell every finger I have with my ribs , and because he does not pay him or feed him properly, which gives us some insight into how careful Shylock is with his money. His daughter, Jessica, also knows him well and she does not have anything good to say about him, I am not to his manners , she does not like who her father is and she is ashamed of being his daughter, what heinous to be my fathers child . She does also not think much of her and her father s religion, as she wants to become a Christian, I shall end this strife, Become a Christian . It could also be said that Shylock was more bothered about his money when he found out his daughter had run away, A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats , which says a lot about his personality and his meanness. His job also says something about this meanness that he possesses, brings down The rate of usance here , all he cares about is his money. In Act 4 scene 1 he also shows another part of his personality, evil.
If every ducat in six thousand ducats
Were in six parts and, every part a ducat
I would not draw them.
He is saying that he does not care about the money anymore; all he wants is his bond, a pound of Antonio s flesh. Bassanio pleads with him but he is intent on taking his bond, and with it Antonio s life.
Obviously there is clear evidence that the characters do not hate Shylock simply because he is Jewish, there is evidence that he is an evil person and that he is only concerned about his money. Shakespeare does give Shylock a chance to justify his actions and the way he behaves in Act 3 Scene 1 when he gives his sympathetic plea to the audience, hath a Jew not eyes? , the purpose of this speech, however, is only to justify himself and his reasons for wanting to kill Antonio. He does this by talking about how Jews are people too and that he has been abused for years because he is a Jew.
There is also some anti-semitism shown towards Jessica although it is very subtle and it is not of malicious intent like some of the things that are said to Shylock. The first evidence of this is when Launcelot says goodbye to her in act 2 scene 3, Most beautiful pagan. Most sweet Jew , he says the word pagan as if her or her religion are ungodly and once again we see the use of the word Jew and he is saying that she is beautiful and sweet, for a Jew, this could be taken as an insult. Her lover Lorenzo also makes subtle remarks about her religion, a gentle and no Jew , this is a play on words, gentle and gentile, and he says it as if no Jewish people could be nice and that all gentiles are, which proves the feeling of anti-semitism that runs throughout the play. Later on in the play there is also another incident where Launcelot and Lorenzo tease Jessica about her Jewish nationality.
Shakespeare was a play write writing for a certain kind of audience at a time in history when people did not care about being prejudice and the way he writes the play reflects these views and the people who would watch the play. Anti-semitism is an important theme of the play but it is not the only theme of the play and Shakespeare did not set out to write a play about anti-Semitism he just mad the bad guy of the play a Jew for dramatic intent, he would want to make the baddy hated by the audience and as the audience he was writing for hated the Jewish race it would have been a good choice to choose a Jew. Overall I think that Shakespeare does display anti-Semitism in the play but it is all for dramatic intent and he is not writing like this because he is prejudice himself.