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Anti-Semitism And The Merchant Of Venice Essay, Research Paper

Anti-Semitism and The Merchant Of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, depicts the strong anti-Semitic

views of the Elizabethan era, through Shakespeare’s choice of plot, characters’

personalities, and even his words. His play makes the attitudes, and actions of Jews seem

foreign to those of a good Christian. These stereotypes are most evident in the character,

Shylock, a greedy Jewish money lender. Shylock’s antagonistic relationship with Antonio,

a generous Christian merchant, only exaggerates these already obvious anti-Jewish

attitudes and perceptions that would have infiltrated Elizabethan life.

When the play begins, we find Antonio in a horrible state of depression. Quickly,

Antonio’s good friend, Bassanio, appears to ask if he may borrow 3,000 ducats so that he

may ask the wealthy Portia to marry him. This marriage would also ensure that Bassanio

could repay all of the interest free debts he owes to Antonio. Antonio agrees, but has to

borrow the money from Shylock. Antonio’s intention is to pay Shylock back after his

ships come back to port. However, Antonio and Shylock already have a long history of

hatred and insults. Shylock’s hatred for Antonio is even stronger, because Antonio refuses

to collect interest on his many loans. Shylock tricks Antonio into agreeing to give

Shylock a pound of his flesh if the loan is not paid off in three months.

During this time, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Antonio’s friend,

Lorenzo, and converts to Christianity, creating even more hatred of Antonio by Shylock.

Bassanio travels to Portia and follows the wedding plans that were her father’s will. He

correctly selects from a gold, silver and lead casket to find her picture and win her hand in

marriage. Their joy is brief, however. Bassanio receives a letter explaining that Antonio’s

ships were lost at sea and of Shylock’s determination to get his pound of flesh in

accordance with the loan’s terms. Bassanio and Portia wed, as do his friend Gratiano, and

Nerissa, Portia’s maid.

Bassanio and Gratiano travel to Venice to help Antonio in court. Lorenzo and

Jessica are left in charge or Portia’s home. Portia then disguises herself as a lawyer and

arrives at the trial with her clerk, the disguised Nerissa. Portia agrees that the contract is

valid, but she also reveals that Shylock must remove the flesh without shedding Antonio’s

blood. It is illegal for a Jew to shed Christian blood in Venice at that time. Shylock

retreats accepting the money, but the court decides he must be punished for plotting

against a Christian. He is then forced to leave half his wealth to his daughter and convert

to Christianity.

After some confusion, Bassanio and Gratiano are coerced to give their wives rings

to the young lawyers. Portia and Nerissa accuse them of giving the rings to other women.

Eventually, Portia’s deception is revealed. Antonio’s ships are recovered and the group


This plot strongly enforces the perception of Jews as being murderous and money

hungry. The attempts by Shylock to have revenge on Antonio are the main focus of the

plot. At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock has lost all his wealth, and is forced

to convert to Christianity, a horrible fate for a devout Jew. This shows the good

Christians triumphing over the evil Jew.

The character, Shylock, is portrayed as a blood thirsty murderer by Shakespeare.

His first appearance in The Merchant of Venice is in Act one, Scene three. His feud with

Antonio then controls the action in the following three acts of the play. When first faced

with Antonio, Shylock states, “I hate him for he is a Christian” (I, iii, 39). He then speaks

on how his business depends on usury, and Antonio does not practice this. He then

concludes with the other two reasons why he despises Antonio saying, “He hates our

sacred nation, and he rails,/ Even there where merchants most do congregate,/ On me, my

bargains, and my well-won thrift,/ Which he calls interest” (I, iii, 45-48). Shylock accuses

Antonio of verbally and physically abusing him in the past. ” You call me misbeliever,

cutthroat dog,/ And you spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,” and Shylock even continues to

say, ” You did void your rheum upon my beard/ And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur/

Over your threshold!” (I, iii, 108-116). These actions at the time were acceptable for

Christians and Antonio openly admits to them saying, ” I am as like to call thee so again,/

To spet on thee, to spurn thee too” (I, iii, 127-128). Antonio even ignores Shylock’s

presence, referring to him in the third person. “Is he yet possessed?” (I, iii, 61).

Later in the play, we discover that Antonio has actually rescued many of Shylock’s

debtors from their loans, thus preventing Shylock from collecting his interest. Antonio

describes this when he says, “He seeks my life. His reason I well know:/ I oft delivered

from his forfeitures/ Many that have at times made moan to me. therefore he hates me”

(III, iii, 21-24). This revelation later in the play shows Antonio following good Christian

morals in saving Shylock’s debtors. He lends money without interest, in contrast to the

greedy Shylock. Shylock hates him for this generosity, a good Christian virtue. Thus,

Shylock attacks not only a good Christian man, but Christian morals in general. This

anti-Christian attitude has no ground in Elizabethan society.

When the contract is initially made, Shylock is very cordial and acts as though the

pound of flesh is a light hearted joke, even calling it a “merry bond”(I, iii, 170). He says, ”

A pound of a man’s flesh taken from a man/ Is not so estimable, profitable neither,/ As

flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say/ To buy this favor I extend friendship” (I, iii,

162-165). Bassanio even warns Antonio at this time saying, “I like not the fair terms and

villain’s mind” (I, iii, 176). During the play, Shylock’s motive for the bond is eventually

revealed to be that of murder. He will rid himself of a business rival and hated enemy.

Shylock says, “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he/ out of Venice I can

make what merchandise I will” (III, ii, 120-121). This portrayal of a murderous Jew is

supported through the play. Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica says, ” When I was with him,

I have heard him swear/ To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,/ That he would rather

have Antonio’s flesh/ Than twenty times the value of the sum/ That he did owe him” (III,

ii, 284-288). During the trial scene, Shylock whets his knife when he discovers the forfeit

that is owed to him. Shylock rejoices in the thought of cutting Antonio, saying, ” Ay his

breast—/ So says the bond, doth it not, noble judge?/ “Nearest his heart”; those are the

very words” (IV, i, 252-254). Shylock’s murderous nature becomes very evident with this

constant blood-lust.

Shakespeare’s choice of words also depicts Shylock as nothing more than an

inhuman villain. He is rarely refereed to by his name. Instead, he is simply called “the

Jew. “This prejudice is demonstrated throughout the play with tell tale phrases such as

“dog Jew” (Ii, viii, 14) and ” currish Jew” (IV, i, 291). Eventually Shylock is demoted

from man to animal. He is cursed by Gratiano in the phrase, ” O be thou damned,

inexecrable dog” (IV, i, 128) and later describing Shylock’s desires as , ” wolvish, bloody,

starved, and ravenous” ( IV, i, 138). In the Elizabethan society Jews were almost on the

same level as dogs.

After Shylock is stripped of his humanity it is easy to identify Shylock the worst

allusion, the devil. In the first scene including Shylock, Antonio comments that ” The

devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (I, iii, 95). This reference is continued throught

the play. Launcelot refers to Shylock as ” the very devil incarnation” (II, ii, 27), and

Jessica his daughter refers to his home as “hell” (II, iii, 2). Upon entrance of Shylock,

Solanio once states, ” Let me say Amen betimes, lest the devil cross/ my prayer, for here

he comes in the likeness of a Jew” (III, i, 19-20).

This constant demonization of Shylock by Shakespeare affirms the anti-Semetic

views voiced through Shakespeare’s words in The Merchant of Venice. This is not meant

to say that these were the views held true by Shakespeare. He was only a playwright, who

catered to the mass audience. Thus, these views in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

were the perception of the Elizabethan people about the Jewish. His words, depiction of

Shylock’s character, and plot only supported those popular stereotypes of the Elizabethan

time. It makes good sense that the cultural hostility towards the Jewish would infiltrate

Shakespeare’s writing, leaving written documentation of the anti-Semitic attitudes of the

Elizabethan era.

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