Is Shakespeare Predjudiced? Essay, Research Paper
Is Shakespeare Prejudiced? In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, the one character that is truly hardto figure out is Shylock. Shylock is an old, greedy, villainous man, but he is also a Jewwho loses everything. It’s hard as a reader or audience to know whether you are supposeto feel sorry for this man or greatly dislike him. It’s also hard to figure out if Shylock isplaying the villain role in the play or if Shakespeare could be showing discrimination. Inthis paper, I am going to explore the character of Shylock and try and decide just exactlywhat kind of character he is. Act I, Scene 3 is the first introduction to the character of Shylock. Bassanio needsmoney and because all of Antonio’s ships are out to sea, he goes to Shylock for a loan. Shylock says to himself: “I hate him for he is a Christian; But more, for that in lowsimplicity He lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance here with us inVenice. If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”(Barnet 16). Because of this statement, my first impression of Shylock is Shakespeare istrying to portray him as a stereotypical Jewish man. During this time, it was against theirreligion for Christians to charge interest, but it was not for Jewish people. Shylockobviously hates Antonio because he is Christian, but also for the fact that he doesn’tcharge interest. Usually, people think of Jews as being greedy. Some feel thatShakespeare is definitely portraying that through Shylock. He is an angry, prejudiced,greedy man, which at that time was not atypical for Christians to think of as Jews. However, a person could also look at this scene and feel that this is Shakespeare’sway of setting up who is going to be the villain in the play. When Shylock says he hatesAntonio because he is Christian, some people automatically feel as if that is just ludicrous,and Shylock is just an old, greedy man, Jewish or not. Shylock obviously is well-off as faras money goes, and it seems he just wants to take revenge on any Christian because of thepersecution he’s been through. Also, Antonio and Shylock were never friends to beginwith, so Shylock has no reason to be nice or like Antonio. After the introduction to Shylock, we also get introduced to Shylock’s daughter,Jessica, in Act II, Scene 3. Some people believe this scene also seems as if Shakespeare isshowing his discrimination towards Jewish people. Jessica’s first words are spoken toLauncelot after he tells her he’s leaving: “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so; Ourhouse is hell, and thou a merry devil Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness. Butfarewell to thee; there is a ducat for thee” (Barnet 30). Jessica also goes on to say toherself after Launcelot leaves: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me To be ashamed to bemy father’s child! But though I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners. OLorenzo, If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy lovingwife!” (Barnet 31). So, it is quite obvious that Jessica is very unhappy living with herfather, and it seems as if the only way she can be happy is if she converts to Christianity. Shakespeare very well could be saying through Jessica that the only way a Jewish personcan ever be happy is by leaving the Jewish religion and becoming a Christian. If their”house is hell” than once again Shylock is portrayed as an evil, Jewish man who hascreated an atmosphere that no one would want to live in, whether it be Launcelot orJessica. On the other hand, this scene may have nothing to do with the fact that Shylockand Jessica are Jewish. Shakespeare could just have Jessica being unhappy becauseShylock is the villain character who is not a thoughtful, loving father. Jessica could bemore ashamed to be of her father’s blood because of the man he is, and not because of hisreligion. She also could be wanting to change religions strictly because she is in love andwill do anything to be with the man she wants to marry. In the very next scene, Shylock is leaving his house to Jessica, and Shakespeareseems to be presenting the stereotypical Jew once again. Shylock says to Jessica, “Lockup my doors; and when you hear the drum And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,Clamber not you up to the casements then, Nor thrust your head into the public street Togaze on Christian fools with varnished faces; But stop my house’s ears–I mean mycasements; Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter My sober house” (Barnet 34). Thispassage shows that Shylock is very concerned with his belongings, so much that he’shaving a hard time leaving them. Stereotypically, Jewish people are very obsessed withmoney and their possessions, and have a hard time trusting people. Shylock is definitelyconcerned with his house, and he doesn’t seem to trust Jessica all that much. In contrast, Shylock did have a bad dream and that is the reason he could be
worried about leaving. He has worked hard for his money, and he may feel as if he can’ttrust anyone because he is one of the only Jews in this Christian country. Shakespearemay also be setting up the fact that Jessica can not be trusted because she does end uptaking a lot of her father’s money and betraying him. In Act II, Scene 8, Shylock learns that Jessica has run off with Lorenzo, aChristian, and has taken a lot of his money. I believe this is the only scene where it canonly be argued that Shakespeare is definitely being prejudiced. Solanio is telling Saleriowhat happened when Shylock found about his daughter and his money. Solanio says, “Asthe dog Jew did utter in the streets: ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fledwith a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats…..Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl! She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!” (Barnet 41). First of all, Solanio refers toShylock as a “dog Jew.” There is really no way of defending that name-calling. Second ofall, it is very apparent that Shylock is just as worried, if not more worried about his moneybeing taken and him getting it back. Shakespeare is saying that Shylock thinks of Jessicaas a possession, and also that as far as possessions go, his money is more important thanhis daughter. To me, Shakespeare wrote this scene purely with the negative stereotypesof Jewish people in mind. This scene is very discriminatory against Jews. To counteract the previous mentioned scene, in Act III, Scene 1, Shakespearepresents Shylock as an actual human being again. He says, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jeweyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?–fed withthe same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by thesame means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If youprick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we notdie?” (Barnet 49). The only way I can look at this statement is that Shylock is just alonely, desperate man who is angry and revengeful. However, this mean man is stillhuman and does not like being ostracized because he is Jewish. He wants people to seethat he is human and normal like them. He wants them to see that he is not differentbecause of his religion. Shakespeare makes up for his previous discrimination in thisscene. In the end of the play, Shylock wants Antonio to pay his debt which is a pound ofhis flesh. Shylock has him arrested, and they go to court. Everyone is trying to convinceShylock to just take the money he is owed but Shylock answers with: “You’ll ask me whyI rather choose to have A weight of carrion flesh than to receive Three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that, But say it is my humor. Is it answered?….So can I give no reason, norI will not, More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I followthus A losing suit against him. Are you answered?” (Barnet 72,73). It is hard tounderstand why Shylock won’t take the money, especially because stereotypically a Jewwould want the money; however, Shylock wants revenge and feels he is entitled to it. Inthe end though, Shylock should have taken the money because he ends up losingeverything instead. Could Shakespeare have been setting up Shylock so the Jew wouldlose everything? It is possible. Especially because the punishment ends up being up toAntonio, and Antonio states this: “So please my lord the Duke and all the court To quitthe fine for one half of his goods, I am content; so he will let me have The other half in useto render it Upon his death unto the gentleman That lately stole his daughter. Two thingsprovided more: that for this favor he presently become a Christian; The other, that he dorecord a gift Here in the court of all he dies possessed Unto his son Lorenzo and hisdaughter” (Barnet 84,85). Shylock ended up losing everything: his money, his daughter,and his religion. Did he deserve this? You can argue it either way. Shylock was verygreedy and mean; he was the villain. The villain always loses in the story, thereforeShylock had to lose. However, you can also look at Shakespeare writing a play aboutwhy you should not be Jewish. The only Jewish person in the play ended up losingeverything and being forced to convert to Christianity, and his Jewish daughter was onlyhappy because she married a Christian man and converted. Shylock is truly a controversial character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant ofVenice. It’s hard to know if Shakespeare is prejudiced or if he was just trying to write agood play with a believable villain. In my eyes, it is hard to overlook the fact that Shylockreally didn’t do anything wrong, but still got everything taken away from him. And, thefact that Antonio made him give up his religion and switch to Christianity makes mebelieve that deep down Shakespeare was prejudice and was portraying that throughShylock’s character.