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Shakespeare’ The Merchant of Venice Essay

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The Merchant of Venice is one of the more challenging works of William Shakespeare. When read at face value, it presents a rather problematic tale of Spanish Christians who must suffer the harsh and unrelenting lack of mercy of a Jewish moneylender, which concludes in a rather unsettling fashion by forcing him to convert to Christendom all while they get their happily ever after. Over the course of the play, we are presented with a rather unflattering portrait of the Jew and the manner by which he exercises his place in society, which is easily read as a rather anti-Semitic characterization.

However, it wouldn’t be out of hand to suspect that perhaps Shakespeare’s perceptions of Jews may not have been entirely in sync with the rather prejudiced attitudes of the Elizabethan era which he lived in. After all, this is a man famous for his rather sophisticated and complex characters, many of whom are not what they seem to be such as Romeo, the hopeless romantic who is actually rather foolhardy and shallow in temperament and the paralyzingly indecisive and neurotic Hamlet, a so-called hero who is indirectly responsible for a multitude of family deaths.

It is in this light that one could charge The Merchant of Venice as a complex examination of the relationship between the Christians and Jews in societies where the former are the hegemonic norm, and the latter are ill understood minorities. Although the eponymous Merchant of Venice is Antonio, it is the contentious position which Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, holds in the narrative that provokes fascination.

He is a seemingly hideous personality, who unmercifully attempts to collect a pound of flesh as the price for a defaulted loan, and for the Christian characters, his forced conversion is a positive outcome which redeems him from his own ‘lesser’ faith. However, towards the end of the narrative, Shakespeare makes the puzzling move of giving Shylock a profound plea for mercy before the court:

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, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d 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? —Act III, scene I

Up until this point, the play does little to draw any overt parallels or connections between Shylock and the Christian characters, so inserting such a soliloquy, one which invites the protagonists to identify with him, so late into the story is rather curious. Shylock begs for mercy with the rather sophisticated approach of calling for the differences in faith to be overlooked in favor of the common bond of humanity, and all the foibles and quirks those commonalities entail.

Additionally, Shylock’s soliloquy calls attention to the hypocrisy of the actions of the Christian characters that have lead up to this point in the plot. Not only does he argue that he is no different than the protagonists, but he observes that this similarity holds true even in terms of faults and weaknesses. He concludes his soliloquy with:

“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.” – Act III, Scene 1

Shylock has diplomatically expressed an observation that his capacity for revenge does not take its roots in being a Jew, but in being human and makes him no better or worse than the protagonists. In effect, Shakespeare may be commenting on the inappropriate manner by which ‘justice’ has been obtained: Portia acting as judge when she really ought not to, especially when she has a personal involvement in the case against Shylock.

Even if Shakespeare did not intend the play to be read this way, the fact that it retains its power on stage for audiences who may perceive its central conflicts in radically different terms is an illustration of the subtlety of Shakespeare’s characterizations.

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