Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic Play? Essay

The Merchant of Venice features a Jewish character that is abused and slandered by nearly every character in the play. Throughout the play the behavior of these characters seems justified. In this way, The Merchant of Venice appears to be an anti-Semitic play. However, The Merchant of Venice contains several key instances, which can be portrayed in a way that criticizes anti-Semitism. The first instance occurs in Act 1, scene 3 when the audience realizes that Shylock has every right to be extremely angry with Antonio. The second instance occurs when Shylock breaks out of his one-dimensional character form in Act 3, scene 1 in an extremely powerful speech that attacks the very foundations of anti-Semitism and shows his sorrow that Jessica ran off with Lorenzo. The third instance encompasses all of Act 4, scene 1. Although anti-Semitism is quite prevalent throughout the scene, it is clear that the characters persecuting Shylock are being extremely hypocritical by returning Shylock's malicious wishes with more malice of their own. 

Shylock is characterized nearly throughout the play as an evil, murderous man. This image of him is supported by the excessive bloodlust that Shylock exhibits. The audience is made to hate Shylock early on. In Act 1, scene 3, Shylock tells the audience that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." (1, 3, 42) For an audience composed nearly completely of Christians, this was a line simply meant to provoke the audience to hate Shylock. Jessica relates how "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." (3, 2, 296-300) Once Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, stealing Shylock's ducats, Shylock tells Tubal that he wishes his daughter "were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear; would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!" (3, 1, 87-90) When Shylock discovers that Antonio's ship will not come in, his cruelty is revealed. He declares, "I'm very glad of it. I'll plague him, I'll torture him, I am glad of it." (3, 1, 115-116) At the end of Act 3, scene 1, Shylock's true motive is revealed. 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." (3, 1, 125-127) All these comments clearly attempt to paint Shylock as a money-worshipping murderer and not as a person. 

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In every confrontation with Shylock, the other characters attack him with insults that make him appear even viler than his cruel demeanor portrays. There is a common trend throughout the play of demonizing Shylock. In Act 1, scene 2, Antonio counters a legitimate argument that Shylock makes to support his usurping by stating that "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose!" (1, 3, 107) In Act 2, scene 2, Lancelet Gobbo identifies Shylock as "a kind of devil", "the devil himself", and "the very devil incarnation." (2, 2, 24-28) Solanio identifies Shylock as "the devil . . . in the likeness of a Jew" (3, 1, 20-22) and Bassanio identifies Shylock the same way, as "cruel devil." (4, 1, 225) This repeated characterization is certainly driven hard into the minds of the audience nearly to the point where they would mindlessly chant, "Shylock equals devil," whenever he appeared on stage. However, this characterization is emphasized so much that the audience may also realize its absurdity. 

There are, however, three examples from The Merchant of Venice that do not fall along the line of the anti-Semitism that prevails in other parts of the play. The first example is in Act 1, scene 3 where the audience meets Shylock for the first time. Although the audience is almost immediately greeted with the Shylock's announcement that he hates Antonio because he is Christian, the audience is also confronted with unsettling information about the so-called good Christian, Antonio. Shylock reminds Antonio that oftentimes Antonio abused and insulted Shylock on the street, and Shylock merely turned his cheek. Shylock says, "suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe." (1, 3, 120) This comment does not fit into the stereotype of Shylock as evil and conniving, and the audience should be very disturbed when Shylock makes a just argument, asking why he should help Antonio at all when he had kicked him, called him a dog, and even spat on him. 

Act 3, scene 1 contains probably the most powerful example of Shylock breaking out of his stereotype. Shylock has just suffered the worst experience of his life so far. His only daughter, Jessica, has run off with a Christian and stole thousands of ducats when she left. No justice shall be carried out concerning this because he is a Jew. Shylock responds, almost breaking out of character by saying: 

"I am a Jew. 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 wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong 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." (3, 1, 57-72) 

This speech is the main proof that The Merchant of Venice is not a wholly anti-Semitic play. Had Shakespeare wanted to keep Shylock a simple one-dimensional character, a crude stereotype, he never would have included this speech. Unfortunately, immediately following this speech, Shylock makes a speech to Tubal that can change the audience's perspective of Shylock. He tell Tubal that he wishes his daughter were dead and that he had his money back. This can be interpreted by the audience in two ways. Out of the context of the earlier speech, Shylock would appear to be acting as a stereotypical Jew, but within the context of the speech, the audience can interpret Shylock's comment as an attempt by him to express how hurt he is that Jessica left him. 

Act 4, scene 1 includes another example of an inconsistency in the trend of anti-Semitism in the play. It is composed of the trial determining whether or not Antonio must hold to his contract and allow Shylock to subtract a pound of flesh from his body. Everyone in the scene is absolutely opposed to Shylock, who is clearly playing his role as the stereotypical Jew, bent on killing the Christian. Portia enters and preaches mercy to Shylock, attempting to reach some sort of "Christian" goodness inside of him. She says, "the quality of mercy is not strained." (4, 1, 190) When Shylock refuses to acknowledge this, Portia catches him on a technicality in his bond. She uses every extent of the law in order to strip Shylock of his entire estate. She practices none of the mercy she preached minutes before. Antonio, the supposed "good Christian" proposes that Shylock be robbed of his religion as well, and be christened. The outright hypocrisy of the Christian characters should disgust the audience. This proves that the subject of the play is anti-Semitism, but that it is actually a criticism of anti-Semitism, rather than an example of it. 

The Merchant of Venice contains enough anti-Semitic material for it to be portrayed as a classic Elizabethan anti-Semitic play, among the likes of Christopher Marlow's The Jew of Malta, however, unlike The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice also contains several important pieces that, if portrayed correctly, can shift the entire mood of the play. Because of these pieces, a director can make The Merchant of Venice into a scathing criticism of Anti-Semites and their beliefs. Shylock can be portrayed as a hero, rather than a villain, by emphasizing the speech that he makes to Lorenzo and Tubal and by making Portia's cruelty in Act 4, scene 1 especially evident. Because of this notion, The Merchant of Venice is not innately anti-Semitic. It can either be anti-Semitic or an aggressive criticism of anti-Semitism, or anything in between?  It depends on how it is interpreted by directors and by actors and how the audience receives it. 

Works Cited and Consulted: 

Danson, Lawrence. Anti-Semitism in "The Merchant of Venice." New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. 

Granville-Barker, Harley. "The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, Leonard Dean, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. 

Shakespeare, William. "The Merchant of Venice." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1998. 

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