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Shylock Is a Jew in a Predominantly Christian Society Essay

Question: ‘Shylock is a Jew in a predominantly Christian society just as Othello is…living in a predominantly white society. But unlike Othello, Shylock rejects the Christian community as firmly as it rejects him.’ (W.H. Auden, ‘The Dyer’s Hand’, 1963. Quoted in ‘Shakespeare’s Comedies’, edited by Lerner, Penguin 1967.) In light of the above quotation, compare and contrast Shakespeare’s presentation of prejudice, considering how audiences of different periods might react to it. (2000 words)

Shylock’s presentation of prejudice has been received in immeasurably different ways by audiences of different generations, and the portrayal of the attitudes of Shylock and Othello towards their intolerant societies are ones that still arguably offer a valuable view towards prejudice in our present-day societies.

‘Shylock is a Jew’. Four words from the above quotation which arguably encapsulate the main running theme throughout the whole of The Merchant of Venice. From a Venetian viewpoint, Shylock is a Jew; therefore he is different; therefore we will exclude him. Shakespeare shows this through many different examples, from the racist views expressed by ‘good Antonio’, to the expressions used by the high courts of Venice; the Christian community expressing a certain divide and prejudice towards Shylock and the Jewish minority. This ‘rejection’ of the Jews is notably explored in the views expressed by Antonio early on in the play, when the loan of ‘three thousand ducats’ is negotiated. Bassanio attempts to convince Shylock through kind words and offers of dinner- the ‘Christian’ way of kindness; possibly the only instance of kindness offered to Shylock throughout the entire play. However, as soon as Antonio enters, the tone changes; Shylock goes from being referred to as ‘sir’ by Bassanio to ‘The devil’ by Antonio. Antonio would ‘spit on thee again’, and this particular example highlights that, despite the fact Antonio is attempting to receive a loan from Shylock, prejudice is still inherent in his every word and action. The Christian community ‘rejects’ Shylock, no matter what he may do of benefit to them; and, as a result, is rejected in like. The harsh treatment Shylock receives (such as curfew and a barrage of cuss-words) is reflected in the way that he ‘rejects the Christian community as firmly as it rejects him’; for example,
when offered dinner, Shylock launches into an expletive, hate-fuelled speech about Christianity, claiming that pork is ‘the habitation which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into’, and firmly stating that he ‘will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you’. Shylock is rejecting the Christian community with every moral fibre in his body, and seems to only take the bond of Antonio to hold some kind of leverage above him, namely the term of ‘the forfeit/ Be nominated for an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh’; a foolishly agreed term that is taken full advantage of. Shylock is treated harshly, and as a result takes full advantage of the fact that legally he can kill Antonio; thus rejecting the Christian community.

Othello, however, is the polar opposite of Shylock’s ‘stand-alone’ attitude; though being the outsider ‘in a predominantly white society’, he attempts to fit in, and be loved by the aristocratic Venetians. Shakespeare presents the prejudice inherent in Venetian society in a slightly different way; though Shylock and Othello both are used by the ‘majorities’, and thrown out when not needed, Shakespeare presents a play that explores the prejudice through a different angle. Othello is the war-hardy soldier needed by the whole of Venetian society to fight the Turkish aggressors, who angers Venetian society by taking a white woman; Shylock is a Jew whose possessions are needed by Antonio alone, who angers Venetian society by daring to claim what is rightfully his. In Othello the audience receives an impression that, though Iago is manoeuvring everybody towards his own aims, Othello is clearly in the wrong when murdering his wife; therefore he is rejected by the ‘society’, and this is morally ‘right’. In The Merchant of Venice the audience feels that, actually, Shylock is morally wronged by the Christians; and this rejection by society leaves a bitter taste. An audience in Elizabethan times would have been left with (in both plays) a feeling of discontentment in the treatment of the two key characters; despite the obvious inherent prejudice in society at this time towards ‘moors’ and Jews, Shakespeare’s manipulations of stereotypes in his works (e.g. the ‘kind’, Christian Antonio is an oppressive character who almost gets his comeuppance) were aimed to alter (or at least make the audience question) their views on minorities. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock can easily be seen as a plea for tolerance towards the Jewish community in England at the
time. For example, Shylock’s famous ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ speech is designed to throw a human perspective on the matter; that the ‘Jews’- peoples that have been so discriminated against that any racism against Jews has its own nametag – are human too. Shylock’s most memorable speech is a cry for humanity and equality, which has resounded down the ages. As Alexander Granach (a German actor who portrayed Shylock in the 1920s) in his autobiography ‘From the Shtetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor’ writes; Shakespeare ‘gave Shylock human greatness and spiritual strength and a great loneliness–things that turn Antonio’s gay, singing, sponging, money-borrowing, girl-stealing, marriage-contriving circle into petty idlers and sneak thieves.’ This will undoubtedly have had a slight effect on the audience, showing them that the supposed ‘villain’ of the piece is simply following a twisted, unmerciful version of the ‘Golden Rule’, an ethic of reciprocity that is cited in Christianity; ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. In this play, Shylock is indeed doing ‘unto others’ how they do unto him. Shylock’s actions, instead of being a stereotypical cruel, vengeful Jew who only cares about his ‘diamond gone (that) cost me two thousand ducats’, are transformed by Shakespeare into an often-misinterpreted statement about the hypocrisy inherent in both society and religion at this time.

Shakespeare’s magic lies in the fact that he managed to change two persecuted minorities, who prior to being dramatically personified by Shakespeare had been held up in plays as mockeries of creatures, to human beings with the emotional capacity to feel love and hate. Othello is no longer a ‘black ram’ held up by Iago as crudely ‘topping (the) white ewe’, he has become a symbol of the outsider used for other’s purposes. In Othello’s doing of ‘ta’en’ of Desdemona, he turns Venetian society against him, and is only needed for the purposes of defeating the Ottomans. 300 years on, and this example is still relevant; Paul Robinson, a black actor who went on to portray Othello on Broadway in 1943, drew comparisons between Othello’s situation and the situation of a coloured man in America in the 1930s; ‘while (Othello) could be valuable as a fighter he was tolerated, just as a negro who could save New York from a disaster would become a great man overnight…however, as soon as Othello wanted a white woman…everything was changed, just as New York
would be indignant if their coloured man married a white woman’. In this way, Shakespeare’s portrayal of minorities is relevant for all societies where ethnical persecution takes place, no matter what the time period.

However, Shakespeare’s underlying meaning of equality has been twisted. David H. Lawrence famously quoted ‘Never trust the artist, trust the tale’; and indeed, this ha what happened with Shakespeare’s intentions for Shylock and the grim reality. For example, the character of Shylock was used in anti-semetic propaganda by Hitler in Nazi Germany to promote the scapegoating of the Jews; Shylock is held up by a local newspaper in Konigsberg, Germany in 1935 as ‘cowardly and malicious’ when ‘properly understood’, a line that undermines both the intelligence and self-esteem of local people upon reading (in that they did not read enough into the play), and the true meaning of The Merchant of Venice. Upon saying that the deeper meaning is that Shylock is cowardly and malicious, they are mistaking the shallow, surface meaning for a deeper one. As Harold Bloom commented in 1999, ‘It would have been better for the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play’; here, Bloom is obviously commenting on the fact that people only took away the shallow meaning, not the deeper, politically-charged (for the times) meaning that Shakespeare is attempting to convey.

In a manner seemingly parallel to that of Nazi Germany, Shakespeare’s messages are being sorely misunderstood even nowadays. Shakespeare and his plays (in present-day, less inherently racist society) are being taken away from younger generations, such as in British schools whose teaching is becoming impeded by the P.C nature of today’s ‘Big Society’. Texts and plays key to British education (such as ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘Othello’) are being considered to blatent in their language (eg. ‘whore’, ‘moor’) to be studied at an age of 15/16; in an age when arguably the anti-racist messages of Shakespeare need to be implemented. In this way, whilst previous generations of audiences may have held up Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and ‘Merchant of Venice’ as examples of injustice and hypocrisy, today’s audiences are holding them up as too blatent in their use of ‘inappropriate language’. Shakespeare’s messages of equality are, once again, being misunderstood;
especially if people do not understand the messages that ‘the Great Bard’ is attempting to convey. For example, in 2008, nine students at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School (a Jewish comprehensive school) in Hackney in East London refused to sit an exam on ‘The Tempest’ purely because they felt that Shakespeare was anti-semetic owing to his severely-misunderstood portrayal of Shylock. Othello has also often been held up and received down the centuries as purely a negative stereotype; even as recently as 2008. Robert Fisk writes in ‘The Guardian’ that ‘Othello was a Moor, a black Muslim, a mercenary (in the service of Venice) – and a wife killer’. One can assume that this is how he would have been viewed in most predominantly-white countries up until the fall of racism and the increase of diversity; thus missing the fact that Iago is both the catalyst and trouble-starter.

The mannerisms and attitudes of the characters provide a key insight into the prejudices inherent in society, through both the actions and thought-processes provided by Shakespeare. For example, Othello almost unconsciously uses racist terms to describe himself, providing a derogatory edge to his words. This is shown best in the soliloquys given to Othello, especially when he doubts the good nature of Desdemona; he feels that his ‘name, that was as fresh As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black, As mine own face’, i.e. that his previously good nature is now smeared. However, Othello associates his own face as ‘begrimed and black’, in that he sees his very self as something dirty- and that white (i.e. ‘Dian’s visage’, a marble-white Greek goddess) as something good, clean, and pure. Othello appears to have internalised the racist ideologies preached by Venetians such as Brabantio, and this especially comes to heed in the murder of Desdemona. Seeds planted by Iago act as a catalyst to the problem put in the open by Brabantio at the start of the play; that Desdemona would never ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom Of such a thing as thou’. This, ultimately, is something that the entire play relies on; this comment, made in the heat of the moment by Brabantio, ultimately delivers death unto his daughter. Othello begins to doubt Desdemona’s love and honour due to the fact that he has internalised such racist opinions as ‘blacks and whites should not mix’, and is driven crazy by this. As already mentioned, Robert
Fisk spoke of the ways in which Othello would have been viewed; not as somebody noble, but as somebody ‘different’, and (though many in the Elizabethan audience may have been able to sympathise with the beating of Desdemona) a ‘wife killer’; and indeed, this is a way in which some still see him today.

Shakespeare, just like Othello and Shylock, lived in a predominantly white and Christian society, and recognised the prejudices inherent in English society; indeed, his plays reflected society. However, as Chung-hsuan Tung wrote, ‘Shakespeare recognizes the existence of racial differences but he is not a racist. Shakespeare is…an impartial, humanitarian dramatist preaching interracial liberty, equality, and fraternity.’

Alexander Granach – ‘From the Shtetl to the Stage: The Odyssey of a Wandering Actor’ Paul Robinson – ‘My Fight for Fame; How Shakespeare Paved My Way to Stardom’ The Merchant of Venice, Edited by John Russell Brown, ‘the Arden Shakespeare’, 2007 Othello, edited by E.A.J. Honigman, ‘the Arden Shakespeare’, 1997 John Gross – ‘Shylock: A legend and its Legacy’

Robert Fisk – ‘Offended by Shakespeare? Let’s ban him.’ Guardian, 8th March 2008. Harold Bloom – ‘It would have been better for the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play’, 1999. Chung hsuan-Tung – ‘The Jew and the Moor: Shakespeare’s Racial Vision’, 2008

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