ANTISEMITISM IN MERCHANT OF VENICE
In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare illustrates his feelings towards Jews in 17th century England through the use of a commonly known stereotype during the time, the Jewish views of the law.
Shylock is the focal point of the play, and acts as the traditional stereotype of the Jew in Elizabethan times. He is comically caricatured as a greedy miser and wears a traditional "Jewish gabardine". He is a middle-aged man who has a keenness of observation, a memory for details, and a strong amount of energy. He is well versed in the Bible and is able to draw analogies from various Biblical sources and stories, which relate to the different situations he finds himself in. His manner of speaking shows a bossy, commanding tone with frequent references to the great and ancient names from Scriptures, which he uses to justify his own practices. His speech reveals a cold and calculating mind, reflective of his shallow thinking. Shylock suffers from religious persecution, which is the main theme of the play.
Antonio has reviled and despised this Jew, even humiliating him publicly because of his money lending and usury. Shylock believes that his profiteering is not a sin, which is contrary to the Christian belief, held by Antonio, that money should be lent for charity and not for profit. By his profession and his religion, Shylock is seen as the outsider in a happy and fun-loving Venetian society. His being an outsider causes him to be bitter and his humiliation makes him seek revenge. Antonio becomes the target of that revenge, and Shylock uses the letter of the law to try and take a pound of flesh from his enemy. His strict interpretation of the law backfires on him however, and he winds up losing his wealth and barely saving his life. Although he appears in only five scenes, Shylock is a very powerful character, whose love of money has destroyed any natural human feelings.
In Shylocks opening scene, the animosity between Jew and Christian is presented. Shylock is developed as the accepted stereotype of a Jew in the seventeenth century; he is crafty, cruel, and a mercenary. Shylock is amused that Antonio, a man who spat on him, called him "cut-throat dog," and even kicked him, should now approach him for a loan without any show of shame.
I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not As to thy friends,-for when did friendship take A breed for barren metal of his friend?-But lend it rather to thine enemy; Who if he break thou mayst with better face Exact the penalty (AI sIII 125-132).
These humiliations of Shylock and the Jew's bitterness over being treated so badly are the reflections of the Jewish-Christian relationship of the times. Shylock speaks in a mechanical manner, which underlines Shakespeare's dehumanization of his character. It also implies cruelty and moral degeneration. Shylock says that Antonio is is a "good" man. For him, good refers to wealth and not to kindness or humanity. He stresses the fact that Antonio's wealth is all at sea and observes that "ships are but boards, sailors but men," suggesting that Antonio's money may well be at risk. Shylock represents all that is inhumane and cold. After demurring for some time, Shylock agrees to the loan. Despite his feelings, he will do business with a Christian, for it is profitable for him; but he will not eat, drink, or pray with them. Shylock, therefore, is portrayed as an intruder in a gentile world and an outsider. Shylock's side remarks reveal a deep hatred of Antonio and a lust for revenge.
O father Abram...Pray you, tell me this; If he should break his day, what should I gain By the exaction of the forfeiture? A pound of man's flesh, taken from a man, Is not so estimable, profitable neither, As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats...To buy his favour, I extend this friendship; If he will take it, so; if not, adieu... (A.I s.III 157-167).
He also resents Antonio because he lends money free, reducing the rate of interest, which he as a moneylender, can charge. Shylock reminds him of his professed superiority by saying, oughts you said you neither lend nor borrow upon advantage." Shylock then uses Antonio's past insults to taunt him and now asks him how a dog could lend him three thousand ducats. Antonio suggests that Shylock should lend the money as he would "to thine enemy," imposing the usual terms of a loan. If the money is not repaid on time, Shylock can exact the penalty. Shylock, using the situation to his utmost advantage, pretends to agree with this idea of business, and suggests that no interest will be demanded out of "kindness." Pretending that it is a joke, "a merry sport," he suggests that if the loan is not repaid, he will cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio bridles at this bargain and says, "I like not fair terms and a villain's mind." Antonio reassures his friend about the improbability of losing all his ships. Antonio accepts Shylock's false act of open kindness.
Salarino and Salanio are amused at Shylock's outrage to his daughters elopement, and portray him as a raving fool. They claim he cannot decide which to mourn more the loss of his daughter or that of his ducats. Antonio is also contrasted once again with Shylock. Antonio, with no ounce of jealousy, is happy for Bassanio's love for Portia; but Shylock cannot take any pleasure at his daughter's romance. Antonio does not worry about money, freely borrowing from Shylock to help Bassanio in his pursuit of Portia; Shylock however is driven crazy by the fact that Jessica has stolen his wealth, and he seems to mourn its loss as much, if not more, than the loss of his own daughter. Antonio is as selfless as Shylock is selfish.
When the crazed Shylock hears about the loss of Antonio's ship, he determines to take his pound of flesh from Antonio when he fails to repay his debt in a timely manner. He tells Salarino and Salanio that Antonio's flesh will "feed" his revenge. Shylock then lists the wrongs done to him by Antonio, all because he is a Jew. In this famous speech of justification for seeking revenge, Shylock asks, "Hath not a Jew eyes? ...Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" (AIII s.I 47-59)."
He argues that there is no difference between his position and that of the Christians. Shylock claims that he is as human as they are, with "hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions." It is significant that he makes no mention of having a heart in this diatribe. It is also intentional and ironic that he claims equality only at the lowest levels of human beings, the basic physical form and pure instinct.
Elizabethan Christians are emobied by Antonio and Jews, here embodied in Shylock. Although Shakespeare gives a voice to the persecuted minority, who is allowed to claim equal humanity with gentiles, he uses this voice by having Shylock only claim bodily equality. Shylock shuns gentle ways and lacks humility, generosity and charity. Antonio, who characterizes Christians, is gentle, generous, loyal, and has a noble idea of humanity. Shylock is crazier than ever because of the money he is spending in the search for his daughter. He openly states his bitterness when he says, "I would my daughter were at my foot, and the jewels in her ear." His harangue against Jessica competes with his delight in the news of Antonio's possible ruin. Another Jew, Tubal, plays on Shylock's greed. He raises Shylock's spirits just to deflate them, by changing the subject, first to Antonio, and then to Jessica. Shylock appears to be an outsider even amongst the Jews. It is no wonder that he says he now feels the curse of the Jew.
Salanio's message that all all of Antonio's ships have been lost was followed by the news that Shylock has been insisting on the repayment of his bond. Shylock has told the Duke of Venice that unless the bond is paid, no future business or contract in Venice will have any value. Therefore, the matter is set for court. In this scene, each character lives up to their personality. Antonio shows his courage and forgiveness; Bassanio prepares to sacrifice his happiness and his life to save Antonio; Portia shows her generosity and her respect for friendship; and Jessica, now a Christian, is fully virtuous. By contrast to these Christians, Shylock the Jew is seen as a totally selfish and vengeful character. Shylock refuses to listen to Antonio's pleas for mercy. He states, "I'll have my bond. Thou call'st me dog before thou hadst a cause, but since I am a dog, beware my fangs." Shylock insists on his pound of flesh. Totally in character, Shylock makes no attempt to justify himself, and refuses the appeal made by the Duke. He has sworn "by our holy Sabbath" to collect his dues. Bassanio then pleas with Shylock to change his mind, but to no avail. Antonio interrupts Bassanio, saying that one might well ask the wolf why he eats lambs, as try to soften Shylock's hard heart. He compares Shylock's temperament with the images of destructive forces and says that it is useless to appeal to Shylock on the grounds of decency and kindness since his evil differentiates him from all. Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats now, but Shylock will not relent. The Duke makes a Christian appeal for mercy, reminding Shylock "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none." Shylock, however, firmly believes that he is doing nothing wrong and answers in legal terms, stating, "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" He then claims that the Christians are the ones, who do wrong, treating their slaves abjectly. Significantly, no one answers Shylock's accusations. Shylock is not affected by the eloquence of Portia's speech. He ignores and argues with her every offer. He also rejects Bassanio's offer of even more ducats. As a result, Bassanio turns to Balthazar (Portia), and pleads with her to stretch the law in Antonio's favor. Her reply is that the law is unchangeable. Only Shylock can decide to set the law aside through his mercy. If the law itself is tampered with in this one instance, it will set a precedent, cause "many an error," and make Venice an unacceptable place to do business. An elated Shylock praises this wise, young judge as "a Daniel come to judgment--yea, a Daniel! O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!" The reference here is to the Biblical figure of Daniel who gave justice to Susannah. Just as the suspense and the tension reach their height, Portia produces a legality in the bond by stating, "This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood," only a pound of flesh. The wise Portia Portia is now playing upon Shylock's literal interpretation of the law, for which Jews were well known. Shylock is dumbfounded, for he knows he cannot take a pound of flesh without drawing blood. He reverses his stand and is ready to accept the offer of triple the money due. A defeated Shylock prepares to leave, but Portia stops him. She says "the law hath yet another hold on you." Any alien who plots against the life of a Venetian may be forced to give half his goods to the citizen, and the other half to the state. Moreover, the life of the alien "lies in the mercy of the Duke only." Portia's knowledge of the laws of Venice has left Shylock totally defenseless. Portia advises Shylock to get on his knees and "beg mercy of the Duke." Before he is asked to do so, the Duke pardons Shylock his life and offers to reduce his debt to the state to a mere fine. The Duke becomes the first picture of mercy in the play. The stingy Shylock, however, is unmoved by this display of mercy, and says, "You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live." Antonio then steps in as the merciful one. He asks the court to pardon Shylock of his debt to the state. The half of Shylock's wealth that will go to Antonio will be passed on to Lorenzo at Shylock's . The Jew must also leave all his possessions in his will to Lorenzo and Jessica. Antonio's final condition is that Shylock becomes a Christian. Antonio thus fulfills his role as a Christian by trying to save Shylock from damnation.
Although Shylock receives mercy, he pays a high price in his acceptance to become a Christian. His pain and humiliation are immense since he has such a deep hatred for Christianity. His torture increases at the knowledge that the Christian man who has eloped with his daughter will become his heir. A devastated Shylock accepts the conditions and asks permission to leave the court, saying that he is ill. The explanation of the irony that surrounds Shylock, the gentleness, kindness, and friendship of the Christians, in contrast to the stingy and unrelenting nature of the Jew are all perfect examples of why the writing of Shakespeare has lived through the ages. Although anti-Semitism has diminished considerably over time, the stereotypes and characteristics of Jews being stingy and strict with rules and the law has survived even to this day. Shakespeares views may have been unfair and cruel, but his writing remains evidence of the power he had over audiences, and the reflection of societys views on Christianity and Judaism.