Religion in The Merchant of Venice Essay

Religion was a major factor in a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Religion motivated action and reasoning. In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” religion was more than a belief in a higher being; it reflected moral standards and ways of living. In the “Merchant of Venice,” “a Christian ethic of generosity, love, and risk-taking friendship is set in pointed contrast with a non-Christian ethic that is seen, from a Christian point of view, as grudging, resentful, and self-calculating.” (Bevington, pg. 74) Although Shakespeare writes this drama from a Christian point of view he illustrates religion by conflicts of the Old Testament and the New Testament in Venetian society and its court of law. These Testaments are tested through the Christians and Jews of Venice.

Venice, where this drama takes place, is a largely religious Italian City. Although filled with spiritual people, the city is divided into two different religious groups. Venice was primarily and dominantly a Christian society with Jews as it’s unfairly treated minority. Stereotypes classified Jews as immoral, evil, and foolish people while the Christians were graceful, merciful, and loving. Representing the Christian belief is Antonio who is summoned to court by a Jew who goes by the name Shylock. The cross between Christianity and Judaism begins as Antonio and Shylock create a legally binding bond. The bond’s fine print expresses that if Antonio cannot fulfill his debt to Shylock, Shylock will receive a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As learned in the play, Antonio cannot repay his debt and Shylock publically exclaims his need to receive fulfillment of that bond. Hastily, Shylock is determined to obtain his pound of Christian flesh. Shakespeare provides his audience distinct differences between Antonio and Shylock. The contrast between Antonio and Shylock are comparable and somewhat parallel to the New Testament that Christians practice and to the Old Testament that Shylock adheres to.

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First, we see Antonio, a soft-hearted and morose Christian gentleman whose riches cannot provide him the fulfillment that others deem appropriate. He is sad because he lacks love. To fulfill that love, he assists Bassano in his own quest to pursue love. Though usually depicted as a homosexual relationship, it is a portrayal of love between friends or brothers, another type of bond. This act of bonding puts Antonio in gracious light. He helps his loved one by borrowing money from Shylock and pawns his life to strengthen that bond. This reinforced bondage reflects Antonio’s selflessness, God-like quality, and most importantly Christian morality. 

Shylock on the other hand is not put on the same pedestal as Antonio. As the Jewish representation of Venice, Shylock, “as a usurer, refuses to lend money interest-free in the name of friendship.” (Bevington, pg. 76) This act of usury in the eyes of Christianity is considered sinful, immoral and inhumane. Instead of lending money interest-free he applies collateral and conditions to the bond. Also, Christians of the time looked at Jews with negativity. “It can be argued that this goes back to the earliest days of Christianity, when the tradition began of making the Jews bear the guilt of the Crucifixion. Throughout medieval and early Renaissance Europe the prejudice bred dark fantasies: Jews were accused, for example, of conducting grotesque rituals in which they murdered Christian children and drank their blood. The story of a Jew who wants a pound of Christian flesh may have its roots in these fantasies of Jews violating Christian bodies.” (Mowat, pg. 214-215) All Jews were blamed for Christ’s death. Shylock who had nothing to do with Christ’s death still had to suffer Christian stereotypes and discrimination. He was looked at by Christians as a violent and corrupt individual. Unfortunately, the manner which he seeks Antonio’s flesh seems similar to the “grotesque rituals in which Jews murdered Christian children.” With Shakespeare thickly drawing the line between Christianity and Judaism we can ultimately assume that the bond between Shylock and Antonio, a Christian and a Jew, can only cause a great deal of controversy. 

The court scene where Shylock goes to complete the sentence of his bond is where he will be introduced to the conflict of justice and mercy. More importantly we the audience also sees the New versus the Old testament put in similar contrast with Christianity and Judaism. Shylock is representative of the Old Testament. He represents law and justice. “He rigidly adheres to his “bond”, in strict accordance with the Mosaic principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” (Swisher, pg. 70) Shylock goes forth to all extent, refusing double the amount of ducats owed to him as long as he has his bond. Shylock strictly follows the Old Testament of law and is determined to receive justice. Portia on the other hand teaches the audience the practice of the New Testament. The New Testament which embodies grace, mercy, and forgiveness

In Act Four, Scene 1, the Duke says, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.” (Bevington, pg. 102) This passage from the Duke pleas Shylock for a “gentle” answer. The Duke asking for a “gentle” answer was not a way to dismiss Shylock’s bond, but it was merely asking Shylock to bring forth his mercy and forgiveness as a Christian would. Thus doing so will spare Antonio’s life. According to the Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, “ “Gentle” in all its tricky ambiguity: as meaning something purely external (well-born; Christian) as well as kind, generous, loving…. “we have good reason to suppose that the language of Shakespeare’s source begged the question of gentility; we know that it begged the question of Christianity.” (Calderwood, pg. 252-253) Here Shakespeare questions Shylock’s Christian morality and his ability to practice the New Testament.

Act four-scene one, is another area in which Christianity as well as the New Testament is applied. Portia says,

“ The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherin doth sit the dread and fear of kinds:
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kinds,
It is an attribute to God himself:
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. “

As Antonio confesses the bond, Portia is stating that Shylock “must be merciful” which greatly represents practice of the New Testament. This powerful line suggests those who give mercy will receive mercy. God gives mercy and those who can wholeheartedly give mercy is God-like. Perhaps, Portia here also tries to provide mercy onto Shylock himself. Portia knows that Shylock demands every aspect of his bond but she tries to plea with him anyway. This passage and the passage from the Duke is asking for Shylock although a Jew, to act Christian. Again, Shakespeare highlights acts of the New Testament.

Regardless of these pleas, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh and God ruling vicariously through Portia allows Shylock to proceed with his rightful bond. Justice with his bond. However, this back fires on him. Shylock while attempting to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh is reminded by Portia of conditions that he has missed. The bond does say he can have a pound of flesh, however a pound it has to be exact. It also does not imply Antonio shed a drop of blood. Here Shylock is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Since Shylock has gone forth with his bond, it is by Venetian law “if it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive shall seize one half his goods; the other half comes to the privy coffer of the state, and the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice” (4.1.347-354) In this case a Jew, who has attempted murder onto a citizen shall be tried himself. In the eyes of God, murder is a sin and therefore Shylock is in turn to be justified just as much as he sought his own justice. 

Concluding the court scene, Venetian law requires Shylock to give up half of his property to the state, the other to Antonio, and give up his life. However, Antonio interjects and bargains that Shylock should live if he turn a Christian. “This was a punishment from Shylock’s point of view, … but from Antonio’s point of view, it also gave to Shylock a chance of eternal joy.” Antonio here believes Shylock can be saved. Assuming Shylock should turn Christian, this image hints conversion from the Old to the New Testament. Thus, Shylock’s “Jewish heart” who’s hunger for justice resulted in his own justification, will be introduced to mercy and he shall see salvation.

According to the “Harmonies of the Merchant of Venice”, “the essential thing added to the law by Christ is forgiveness. Mercy, therefore, is made part of the law, rather than an opposing principle. Indeed mercy, or forgiveness, becomes the legal principle enabling all other legal principles.” (Danson, pg. 65) In this case, Shylock was overturned by this Christian government for his lack of mercy or forgiveness. Christians believed in mercy while Shylock only sought justice. For Shylock, his justice seeking could not enable him to provide the mercy asked by God and thus was eventually lead to his own demise. Antonio however, showed how “Christian” he is. Although he asks Shylock to convert, he provides Shylock and opportunity. Instead of taking his life, Antonio is seen through Elizabethan eyes to have given Shylock mercy, forgiveness, and a chance to live. 

Lastly, Shylock’s daughter Jessica is another representation of conversion from the Old to the New Testament. Jessica also a Jew, escapes from home and marries Lorenzo, a Christian. Ironically, she as well breaks a bond with Shylock. This bond would be a father-daughter bond. According to Jessica, “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian.” (3.5.17-18) Jessica being “saved” by her husband can be compared to Shylock’s conversion to Christianity. “Jessica, as the “daughter of Jerusalem” under the Old Law, then as the bride of Christ under the New” (Swisher, pg. 71) 

In conclusion, we can see how powerfully influential religion was in “The Merchant of Venice.” Love, forgiveness, and most importantly mercy, represented the New Testament whilst justice, lack of mercy, and adherence to the law represented the Old Testament. These opposing values were reflected by the Jews and Christians of Venice which Shylock, Antonio, Portia, and Jessica embodied throughout the play. It is the court scene where we are confronted with Christian values and how it played a significant role in Venetian courts and most importantly in Shylock’s fate. Shylock’s need for justice and strict adherence to the law parallels the Old Testament greatly and in a Christian point of view, it was at his disadvantage. Shylock and Jessica’s conversion to Christianity or the New Testament of love, mercy, and grace, indicate the power Christianity had in law and in love. Ultimately, it is safe to say that religion in Venice took the role of judge, and that is, Christ, as its supreme judge.

Works Cited:

Bevington, David. The Necessary Shakespeare. 3. Longman Publishing Group , 2008. Print.
Calderwood, James L. Essays in Shakespearean Criticism. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, INC., 1970. Print.
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice. Great Britain: Yale University Press, 1978. Print.
Mowat, Barbara A., and Paul Werstine. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print.
Swisher, Clarice. The Literary Companion Series: The Merchant of Venice. 1. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Print.

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