Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a play that involves prejudiced views and ideas throughout. Although it does involve prejudice towards various people and groups, the bulk of the prejudiced language is aimed towards the Jewish religion and in particular the Jewish money-lender, Shylock. I am hoping to look at the use of discriminatory language and the way that certain characters (particularly Jews) are portrayed to an audience. I also need to try and understand the feelings and actions of the characters which will help me to make a conclusion on what Shakespeare’s views were and the opinion he wants to give the audience.
Shakespeare wrote the play at the height of his popularity and he knew that this play would be viewed by a lot of people. Was he trying to entertain his audiences with ‘humorous’ depictions and suffering of Jews or was he trying to open the eyes of his audience to the harsh cruelty expressed in white, Christian society? Shakespeare also features prejudice based on skin colour and social classes. Clearly the target of most of the prejudice is Shylock, who is hated by most of the play’s Christian characters for two reasons: firstly is that he is a proud Jew and secondly because he is a cruel, greedy man with an obsession for money.
To a modern day audience these may seem like two very distinct reasons, with the latter almost being justifiable; but in Shakespeare’s time the characteristics of Shylock would have been seen as ‘normal’ for a Jewish person to possess. The only Jewish people that directly receive offensive comments and actions are Shylock and his daughter Jessica, however the prejudice aimed at Jessica is always linked to her relation to Shylock. As Shylock talks of the suffering of Jews through lines such as “Cursed be my tribe” and “Sufferance be the badge of all our tribe”, we are given the idea that his torment is typical of all Jews.
Yet, since his suffering is typical of Jews are his characteristics supposed to be as well? To explain this it is important to look at how Shylock is referred to and how he is differentiated from other Jews. Christian characters call Shylock names such as “misbeliever” and say that his daughter, Jessica has “no mercy in heaven,” because she is a Jew’s daughter. Phrases of this nature are referring to all members of the Jewish religion in a manner that shows the narrow-mindedness that is openly expressed by Christian society.
But Shylock is also called names such as “the Jew” (as opposed to his name), “impenetrable cur” and “dog Jew”, these are names that are based upon his beliefs but are aimed at him because of his notoriety and the violent nature of his bond with Antonio. Their reluctance to use his name and all him ‘the Jew’ is as if they are trying to offend him by calling him ‘what he is’ and turning it into an insult. By giving him a name that contains the word Jew, they are reminding him that he is different from them and not up to their standards.
It is also important to look at the various other incidents of discrimination in the play that are not directed at Jews but at other characters for different reasons. Firstly there are the views of Portia when she is looking at the variety of suitors that have come to attempt to gain her hand in marriage. None of the men interest her yet she still seems to base most of her judgements on the stereotypes that she has of people from their country; for example when she meets the Englishman she states “how oddly he is suited”- this appears to be a comment on the suitor personally but is in fact a comment about Englishmen in general.
She also makes a joke about how the Scottish lord “borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman” and “the Frenchman became his surety” which stereotypes the Scots as being quite violent and the French making false promises due to the quarrelling that took place between the three nations around Shakespeare’s time. I however feel that these prejudiced views were intended very light-heartedly by Shakespeare to make the audience laugh and do not show Shakespeare’s individual prejudices particularly as he makes of the English.
We do however experience much stronger prejudice during the meeting between Portia and the Prince of Morocco who has come to attempt the casket challenge. The interaction between the two begins fairly and at times it seems almost romantic with the Prince the Prince saying “mislike me not for my complexion” and “I would not change this hue’ except to steal your thoughts”; he is directly making a point of his skin colour but persuading her that it does not make him different from the other white suitors.
Portia responds by stating that the Prince “stood as fair as any comer I have yet look’d on for my affection”- so she will not treat him any differently from the others. It appears that Portia holds no racial prejudice against the prince, but when the Prince fails the casket challenge and has left, Portia tells Nerissa “Let all of his complexion choose me so” a direct insight into her true feelings towards the Prince.
She is clearly stating that she does not want any suitor who is not white to become her husband; I think that this brief statement has been included by Shakespeare because it reflects the views of nearly all of Shakespeare’s audience. Had Portia, a wealthy white heiress been willing to marry a foreign, black prince it may have perhaps seemed unrealistic and bemusing to Shakespeare’s audiences. I again think this does not show Shakespeare’s views but he has included this so that his audience can relate to his play and its characters.
When trying to determine whether the play is prejudiced or simply about prejudice there are two key parts of the play to look at in depth. They are Shylock’s speech about the treatment of Jews and also the court scene. Firstly Shylock’s speech in which he questions the way that he has been treated; this speech I believe supports the idea of the play being about prejudice and not being prejudiced. Shylock raises many questions such as “Hath not a Jew eyes… healed by the same means… as a Christian is? ; this shows that Shakespeare is against the behaviour of the Christian characters and is trying to open the eyes of the audience by making them feel sympathy towards Shylock. If Shakespeare was intending Jewish people in general (not Shylock specifically) to be portrayed as the villains of the play he would not have included such an emotive speech. This idea can be supported by what I believe to be the most important section of speech when Shylock says “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why, revenge! “. This conclusion to the speech is suggesting that as Shylock is just as human as a Christian he will treat them how he is treated, a fair statement on its own yet Shylock is describing revenge as the Christian example and refers to it as villainy. As it is the belief of the Christian faith to practise and preach forgiveness, the depiction of Christians as being full of revenge would not have been included in the play to please the audience but again to increase their awareness that the mistreatment of Jews was unfair and in some cases against their religion.
Within the play however, the speech appears to fall on deaf ears as four lines further Solanio (a wealthy Christian) when referring to two Jews together says “a third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew”, perhaps another reference to society at his time from Shakespeare that shows the Jew’s argument being ignored. The court scene is the most important part of the plot in which Shylock shows an immense urge to see his bond through.
The duke of Venice makes pleas for the bond to Shylock to show mercy and accept payment (“tis thought thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse so strange than is thy strange apparent cruelty”), it is important to note again that Shylock is not called by his name but the ‘Jew’ which shows how all of society including the Duke of Venice himself do not see Shylock as an individual but as another Jew. Shylock shows much stubbornness and refuses to change his mind- he “can give no reason… ore than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing”. Despite much anger from Bassanio and Gratiano, and an offer from Bassanio to pay back double the debt, Shylock remains undeterred. Surely if Shakespeare had intended Shylock to continue following the stereotype of Jews as being greedy for money then Shylock would have named a price. The fact that Shylock is so intent on a pound of flesh whereas another stereotyped Jew would have asked for money shows how Shakespeare has made Shylock a villain on his own.
It is as if Shakespeare has made Shylock ‘worse’ than a normal Jew, he is making Shylock out as a villain for his bloodthirsty nature not for being a Jew, this is made clear later in the play when Shylock is forced to leave Judaism behind and become a Christian. Shylock has become too sinister and evil to remain a Jew and has now to rely upon Christian forgiveness; something that he does not believe in and also that anyone reading the play is beginning to question.
The means by which Shylock is persecuted (by Portia and Nerissa in disguise) is not surprising as it turns out that the wealthy Christians manage to be the ‘heroes’ that rescue Antonio and then live in happiness. They appear to rescue Antonio from being killed by Shylock, yet in reality they are just as villainous as him, partly because they show no guilt or remorse when sentencing Shylock (although Antonio spares his life) but more importantly because Shylock was following Christian example- this results in him losing all that matters to him whilst all of the Christian characters enjoy a perfect life.
In conclusion, I believe that this is a play about prejudice not a prejudiced play. Shylock is a grotesque, sinister character but I don’t think that this is because he is Jewish; had Shakespeare been prejudiced towards Jews he wouldn’t have made Shylock stand alone throughout the play, Shylock is left by his daughter and when he is in court he does not have other sinister Jews supporting him as they can see that he is too extreme in his views.
A better idea of what Shakespeare sees as a ‘typical Jew’ may be Tubal, who practises usury and receives harsh judgment from the Christians but does share the vicious mind of Shylock. It is also important to see the transition of Shylock from being similar to Tubal and quite ‘normal’ to being a dark and evil character’ a transition that is caused entirely by the Christians who take his money , his daughter and his religion away from him.
Shakespeare is showing how unjust prejudice can ruin the life of an innocent individual and turn him into a monster like Shylock became. The play is about Christian hypocrisy and the suffering of Jews, I expect however that many of Shakespeare’s audience did not see it like this and believed it to be a fun tale that mocks Jews. Shakespeare did not classify it as a tragedy but I cannot see it as being anything else.