Stereotypes are a fixed image of all members of a culture, group, or race usually based on limited and inaccurate information resulted from the minimal contact with this stereotyped groups. stereotypes have many forms; people are stereotyped according to their religion, race, ethnicity, age, gender, coulor, or national origins. This kind of intolerance is focused on the easily observable characteristics of groups of people. In general, stereotypes reduce individuals to a rigid and inflexible image that doesn't account for the multi-dimensional nature of human beings. One example of stereotypes is the categorization of the Jews in Elizabethan era. In fact, Elizabethan era was an age of prejudice, discrimination, and religious persecution particularly against minorities. Jewish people were one of those minorities who was suffering and struggling for survival. This racist attitude was rife not only in England but also across Europe. "Christians tended to see the Jews as an alien people whose repudiation of the Christ had condemned them to a perpetual migration. Jews were denied citizenship and its rights in much of Europe and forced to wear distinctive clothing to identify themselves in public (the yellow star, or badges of shame). There were forced expulsions of the Jews from several regions across Europe." (1). Jews were even believed to worship the devil.
Being a mirror of the age, Elizabethan literature was not in isolation from the currents of the era including these stereotypes. All these attitudes of ethnocentrism and xenophobia was skillfully interpreted through literature in general and drama in particular. One example of this is Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice which is about a miser money-lender Jew. Portrayal of the Jews was a long-standing tradition by Shakespeare's time as E. E. Stoll argues: "A miser, a money-lender, a Jew – all three had from time immemorial been objects of popular detestation and ridicule, whether in life or on the stage. The union of them in one person is in Shakespeare's time the rule, both in plays and in character writing" (2). Generally, Jews became the villains of Elizabethan drama portrayed as Machiavellian or greedy or both, but they were not as complex as the Jew created in Shakespeare's work. Elements of all these influences – historical, social, and theatrical – helped to mold Shylock the controversial Jew and the focal point of The Merchant of Venice. A character that seems to fit in the stereotype completely creating a true-to-life image of the traditional Jew in flesh and blood.
Undoubtedly shylock possesses every essential feature to be a stereotypical Jew; beginning from his job as a money lender till his clothing "Jewish gabardine" (I, iii).
Shylock begins the play as much as an Elizabethan audience can expect; his first words are about ducats and usury. "Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound" (I, iii) these are the repeated words of shylock during his first appearance as he proves to be "a man whose words are stubborn in his mouth, in whose speech there is no ease or warmth or levity, who hammers out his phrases and can not find a way of varying them once they are uttered. Three thousand ducats ……. Antonio bound. It is the utterance of a man his mind is concentrated, obsessed, focused upon a narrow range of fixed ideas" (3). The repetition of these words suggests that all Jews have a tricky traits to deceive people around them.
A following aside reveals shylock as a thirsty Jew for Christian blood (according to the rumors of blood libels). It is an aside wherein shylock discloses his intentions and motives:
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon my hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. (I, iii)
In this part of the aside ,as John Palmer suggests, "there is no hint that shylock has any human justification for his monstrous project. For the moment Shakespeare is satisfied with presenting his comic Jew in all stark, ugly simplicity of the legend with which his audience was familiar" (4). Moreover, the veiled hostility in shylock's tone illustrates a further stereotypical fact about the Jews which is the unjustified aggression, the innate desire for revenge, and the underlying hatred they bear everyone, especially Christians. The idea of summing up these ideas about shylock in an aside is a successful technique manipulated by Shakespeare to reflect how deceptive a Jew can be.
Shylock is also characterized as a man whose love of money is greater than any emotional feelings or any human relations, even his relation with his daughter, as he points out:
My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich precious stones,
Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl! (II, viii)
In this utterance one can visualize the typical miser and greedy Jew who weeps for his money and jewels calling his "own flesh and blood" (III, i) a thief and asking for legal penalty against her. "I would my 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!" (III, i) his words are so cold-hearted reflecting the innate cruelty of the Jews towards everyone including those who are supposed to be the closest ones to them.
Another stereotypical feature of the Jews is illustrated through shylock's famous soliloquy:
To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing
Else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced
Me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my
Losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation,
Thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated
Mine enemies – and what is his reason? 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 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. (III, i)
It is the Jews' controversial use of language and words that marked them all over the ages. In this soliloquy, it's clear that shylock uses strong shocking words and expressions to illustrate his tragic mischief as a Jew through such an impassioned plea as a way to rise the audience's sympathy with him. However, unfortunately when the audience comes to investigate these words they reveal themselves to be bloodily hatful adopting a very aggressive and threatening tone. Therefore, the audience turns from the complete compassion to the no sympathy. Actually, it's the Jewish typical tradition to use such bitter words to reveal themselves as victims and other people as victimizers and also to justify their monstrous intentions and open hostility towards the others.
Typically, Jews are usually trying to give cagy and evasive answers with no logical evidence in order to mislead anyone who tries to investigate their aggressive attitudes. This long-standing truth is highlighted in the so-called trail scene where Shylock points out:
And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn
To have the due and forfeit of my bond.
If you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your city's freedom!
You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,
But say it is my humour. Is it answered?
So can I give no reasons, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered? (IIII, i)
Such a cruel speech illustrates how arguing with Shylock or any other Jew is something useless; it is like going to "stand upon the beach … And bid the main flood bate his usual height" (IIII, i).
In conclusion, although shylock is portrayed to fit in the stark stereotype of the Jews, the play is not racist or anti-Semitic. Every one who reads The Merchant of Venice must bear in mind that it is, like any other literary work, a creation of a skillful writer rising a case that can be a subject for many interpretations and not necessarily revealing a specific view of its writer, however it aims to convey a certain moral to the readers. Therefore, the character of shylock, being stereotyped or not, with its controversy is a tool manipulated to convey a moral message: when people live in a society that is open to cultural diversity and that values the contributions of all society members - regardless of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, race, life styles, and belief – they will be one step closer to living in a civil society.
1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, the definition of "Anti-Semitism".
2) E. E. Stoll, Shylock (an essay in Shakespeare Studies, 1927).
3) John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare, Shylock.
4) John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare, Shylock.