Background and Influence: Merchant of Venice

In England, during the lifetime of William Shakespeare, oppression was occurring against people of different races, ethnicities, and even genders. The religious conflicts stemmed from the differing translations of G-d's word. This created conflicts and segregation by religion, turning some people into aliens in their own country. The battles existed between Catholics, Jews, and Protestants although, for the majority of the time, the Protestants pitted the Jews and Catholics on the same side, against themselves. In The Merchant of Venice, a play that was later dubbed a comedy, tragedy was just as evident. I believe that the tragedy of the play was the reality of the situation the play encompassed. 

It cannot be a coincidence that there is such a parallel of situations that Shakespeare wrote about. The concept of a Jew being placed into the same circumstances that the Protestants were putting the Catholics into at the same time is obviously analogous of the oppression of the Catholics post-Reformation. The fact that during the estimated time that the play was produced there was a religious persecution ongoing in England is what I believe to be the tragedy of this play. 

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Roughly the time that Queen Elizabeth I's reign was coming to an end, Catholics were viewed as aliens. The reasons behind the separation and persecution of Jews, Protestants and Catholics respectively, were consequent of the theological differences between each religion. The Reformation led to a Protestant-England in the late fifteen-hundreds, when the play was written. Henry VIII transformed the throne, establishing the Protestant Church of England as the nation's church. After Henry, Edward VI reaffirmed the Reformation. Then after a brief period, post-Edward VI, Queen Elizabeth reinstituted the Protestant Church of England as the nation's church. However, many Catholic citizens still resided in the country, but were forced to conform and convert to Anglicanism. This notion of Catholics being aliens in a country that had for a long duration, been established as a nation under the Catholic Church, awakened suppressed bitterness that had been caused by both peoples' past sufferings. The reality that people were physically maltreating other people of a different spiritual background was a legitimate reason for Shakespeare to foundation for this analogous play. 

Shakespeare created this production to give insight to people on just what was going on in England at the time. He positioned the audience in the shoes of Shylock, a usurious Jew who had been antagonized because of the label put on him by people of a different religion by conveying the circumstances that made him who he is in the play. Shakespeare even went so far as to give a brief insight into stereotyping as it existed during his era. When the dark-skinned Prince of Morocco is making his way to Belmont she ridicules his complexion and labels him what she deems appropriate. In regards to the prince's arrival "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me." (Kaplan 36). Once Shakespeare explained the reasoning behind Shylock's resentful nature, the longstanding maltreatment by the hands of certain Christians, the audience cannot help but feel sympathetic towards the oppressed man. This was very much the position of a Catholic during and after the Reformation. If a catholic was to be considered a good person, he or she was forced to convert to Protestantism or face the cruelty for not doing so; cruelty that sometimes included physical punishment. Therefore I believe that the play is accurately analogous for the discrimination by religion that was occurring.

Judaism and Christianity were also very different religions. In regards to their beliefs in the lord, "For Jews, justice and mercy are both attributes of God; performance of the law constitutes obedience to God's will, but if humans sin through neglect of the commandments, their true repentance is answered by divine mercy and forgiveness." (Kaplan 269). Jews are assimilated with justice and law. Catholics believed that faith in the lord will earn the mercy necessary for his grace. For Christians, "Salvation now depended on having faith in God's merciful grace, rather than performing the law." (Kaplan 244). When Jews asserted the want of justice and law, Christians therefore took it as a rejection of G-d. This labeling of law-abiding Jews led to an eventual stereotype of Jews being inherently evil sinners. Conversely, the Protestants basically used the Jews to validate their reasons for forming their own church, "Protestants turned to the Jews, especially as the preservers of the Hebrew Bible, as a source of legitimacy by which they could justify their practices. Basing their arguments on close readings of the Bible, Protestants "proved" the divine authenticity of their reforms and "exposed" the human artificiality of Catholic beliefs and rites." (Kaplan 245). 

As I mentioned earlier, Shylock is considered less of a man for his usurious practices in money-lending. Shylock embodies the oppressed people of the times. He is a man who is not from Venice, an alien, and who is victimized for who he is; in other words, for something that he cannot control. On the other hand, upon examination of Shylock's lifestyle, it is found that he is like the Christian merchants of Venice, in that he strives to be affluent. Without being pegged with the stereotype associated with being a Jew, we find that he lives the same lifestyle as a Venetian Christian, a life that entails the aspirations to become affluent and respected. Shylock expresses his feelings about the abuse he had been subject to, by Christians, in his speech in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play. He reiterates the traits that make people human and explains that he in fact has all of them, the same as any Christian in the world. Shakespeare's characterization of the Jew as a human, with such a persuasive comparison of him being exactly the same as any other man, seems to suggest a feeling of resentment against the religious persecution that existed during his time. This sentiment of bitterness by Shakespeare is felt throughout the play when Shylock is almost deserving of our sympathy. That same bitterness is what the Catholics were feeling in England at the same time. Shakespeare desires the audience to acknowledge that Shylock was once a kind man, but that his kindness was tainted by his constant endurance of ignorant people such as Antonio; people that labeled him as inferior and evil. The fact that Shylock is that a Venetian Christian is not that different from a Jew. A Jew is, in its most primitive form, a Christian without mercy. 

Shakespeare later puts a humanistic spin on murder in the play. Shylock consistently exclaims throughout the play, that he is only doing what he has learned from his Christian counterparts, "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" (Kaplan 68), when he demands that he be permitted to fulfill the bond that he and Antonio agreed to. The equivalence of Judaism to justice and law is clearly evident. Antonio is the most intolerant person of Shylock in the play. He kicked and spat at Shylock on numerous occasions. Antonio also ruined the Jew's business by lending out money without interest. When Shylock is given the opportunity, abiding by his religious decree of justice and law, to take Antonio's flesh he is quick to do so. I believe this is humanistic in that, in taking Antonio's life, Shylock will no longer be subject to his abuse. At the same time, he will be acknowledging his religious beliefs and is justified in doing so. This fulfillment of contract is a personal resolution that Shylock, in his mind, must do to become the man the he aspires to be, a normal businessman in the hub of Venice that is treated as such. Taking Antonio's life would eliminate Shylock's main antagonist from his life and allow him to shed the label of evil and at the same time, uphold his religious equivalence to justice.

Shakespeare also allows for people to both hate and sympathize with the Jew. The surrounding circumstances that bring Shylock to his `need' to satisfy his appetite of revenge with Antonio's flesh would not be so insatiable had Antonio not baited and antagonized Shylock all the years. Though he is mostly portrayed as evil, Shylock appealed to me because of the humanistic spin that I was able to put on the act of revenge. Although a murder may never be totally justified, the punishment that faced Antonio was fitting for the wrongdoings he committed against his opposition. The external forces that compelled the Jew to great craving for retribution were all administered to him by Antonio. The feeling of revenge also incorporates him into the characteristics of a normal human even more. His want of Antonio's demise is a want that men would straightforwardly seek to if put in the same exact situation. There is no other way to punish a man that has basically taken your manhood away from you other than by taking his life. This was especially true during the late fifteen-hundreds where your credibility is everything and nobody trusts you because your heritage that is being slandered by a well-known, highly respected, Venetian merchant. 

In the play, at the same time that Shylock is awaiting his pound of flesh from the failed bond on the part of Antonio, Bassanio is in Belmont choosing a casket to win Portia's hand in marriage. The surface of the golden casket and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the skin are being contrasted against one another. It should be expected that a good Christian would choose not for what is on the outside, but in fact for what is on the inside as they are led by faith. However it is assumed that an alien, such as a Jew, would incorrectly choose the gold casket because of their strict adherence to laws and rules. By this adherence I infer that a Jew would have the preconceived notions of gold being the best choice because of its worth. After all previous suitors choose incorrectly, Bassanio, a good Christian man, chooses the correct bronze casket. This reveals to us that Jews are not the only ones with a greedy nature, but in fact that all suitors alien to Venice in fact chose the incorrect casket. This may symbolize the notion of Christians', symbolic of the Catholics during the time, strong beliefs of faith, since faith is what earns G-d's mercy in their eyes. 

An outsider in any group is always looked at in a different manner than people that belong in the group. In a society where the norms were established as Christian norms that must be followed, it was hard for people to realize the mistakes they were making in persecuting people of a different race or ethnicity. So soon are we to point the finger of blame at the person who does not belong, or the person that is the least like ourselves, that we falsely accuse each other of being things we are not. The Jew was but a man trying to make enough money to earn the respect of those around him, therefore escaping the religious persecution that he was enduring daily. His humanity also was conveyed when he sought revenge, legally, on the person that had oppressed him the most. Given the same shot as Shylock, to get back at a person, legally, that admonished us during our life for no reason other than simply being different; I believe most would chose to avenge that person.

Works Cited:

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice. Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston, 2002.

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