Shylock in the Merchant of Venice Essay
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J. R Brown writes in his introduction to “The Merchant of Venice” that as modern readers we “carry our knowledge of the holocaust throughout the text. ” Due to the atrocities of the Nazi regime, modern readers are quick to sympathise with the play’s Jewish character Shylock and pity his isolation and rejection by Christian society.
However when examining Shylock, we must distance ourselves from current, more enlightened attitudes towards the Jewish people and closely analyse the use of language in the text within its historical context so that we may fully appreciate the character Shakespeare wished to portray to his audience, that of “the devil Jew.
” Before exploring the character of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” it is necessary to frame the tale by briefly examining the period in which Shakespeare was writing so that we may understand as E. E Stoll writes “the soil from which the character of Shylock grew.
” The play was probably written between 1596 and 1598. Despite the debates over the specific date of production there are several more general historical points that must be taken into consideration when exploring the play – particularly in its portrayal of the Jews. Although officially Jews had been banned from England in 1290 and were not formally admitted until the latter days of Cromwell’s rule, Jews were a well known part of life in London. Through the research of Professor C J Sisson and Dr Roth it can now be “definitely stated that Jews did live in London at this time…
and retained certain elements of their ancient worship and way of life. ” Historically it must also be noted that during the years Shakespeare was writing “The Merchant of Venice” England was in a period of great anti-Semitism. Events such as the attempted assassination of Queen Elizabeth by the Jewish Physician Rodrigo Lopez in 1594 fuelled the extremely anti Jewish feeling that existed during these years. Allied to this Jews were stock figures in contemporary plays composed by writers with entrenched prejudices who used the current anti-Semitic feeling to create popular stock villains for ridicule.
In surviving Elizabethan dramas such as Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” we can read how several details are adhered to by the writers when depicting Jews. In countless productions Jews are presented as villainous money lenders with grudges against Christians and pacts with the devil. In Marlowe’s very successful play we are presented with a monstrous filicidal ogre who remarks that he is successful as he is “void of all compassion, love and hope. ” Structurally one can draw many parallels between Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabas in his relationship with money, with his Christian enemies and with his daughter.
Throughout the play we constantly bear witness to how Shakespeare does not let pass any of the prejudices or malicious rumors regarding Jews that existed at the time when creating the character Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice. ” Our first encounter with Shylock demonstrates strongly his closeness to other portrayals of Jews in Elizabethan drama. His first words are of money “three thousand ducats… well” and he repeatedly raises the subject of money “three thousand ducats for three months… well.
” His constant, almost hypnotic repetition could be seen as Shakespeare highlighting Shylock’s complete obsession and preoccupation with issues regarding money. Shakespeare then extends his development of a prototypic comic Jew through not only his concern with money but through his economy of speech. In Elizabethan drama Jewish characters were often presented as being blunt and repetitive in speech and Shakespeare can be seen as using this within his play. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the next few lines of the scene when he discusses the hazards of trade: Ships are but boards, sailors but men.
There be land-rats and water rats, land-thieves and water thieves – I mean pirates. And then there is the peril of water, winds and rocks. We note how Shylock keeps his language very simple and literal. When he does remark on “water-thieves” he feels he must correct himself “I mean pirates” and bring the register of language back to his plain, unfrivolous manner. One could compare this straightforward examination into the dangers of trade with Salerino’s fanciful speech in which he describes Antonio’s ship kissing “her burial” in the sands and ripping open making the vessel “enrobe the roaring water with silk.
” Shylock is made to constantly correct himself whenever he uses a word or phrase that he feels is too imaginative and this again could be seen as Shakespeare creating another divide between Shylock and the other Christian characters through their contrasting use of language. We find further examples of Shylock finding need to correct himself throughout the play whenever his language seems poetic. In Act 2 scene 3 Shylock asks Jessica to close up the house so that “shallow foppery” does not enter. He tells her to “close his house’s ears,” and again he immediately adds a more sober explanation “- I mean my casements.
When Shylock is made to provide a slightly poetic image of his daughter’s betrayal by saying “my own flesh and blood to rebel! ” again typically he re-defines what he said “my daughter… is my flesh and blood” Again Shakespeare can be seen a following the prevailing portrayal of comic Jewish characters through the use of straightforward unfanciful, prosaic language. Shakespeare furthers his development of a typical comic Jew in the first scene with his response to the entrance of Bassanio: I hate him for he is a Christian: But more, for in that low simplicity.
He lends out money gratis, and brings down The rate of usance here with us in Venice In these lines Shakespeare develops on two further prejudices existing towards Jewish people in London at the time by both making him detest another character for his Christian faith – thereby isolating him from his contemporary audience – and by enforcing the idea of Shylock as a greedy usurer. The playwright therefore ensures that from the beginning of the play we support the Christian characters and he does this through drawing on numerous common prejudices towards Jews.
In other areas of the play Shakespeare can be seen as using further preconceptions regarding Jews when creating Shylock to ensure that the character would be held in contempt by his largely anti-Semitic audience. In Act 1 scene 3 Shylock agrees to give Bassanio three thousand ducats provided if he is not repaid on “such a day” he may take an “equal pound” of Antonio’s “fair flesh… to be cut off and taken in what part” of his body “pleaseth” him. Antonio seals the bond saying “there is much kindness in the Jew.
” Within these lines Shakespeare can be seen as skirting the fringes of a horrible prejudice regarding Jews. Amongst the Elizabethan public there existed the belief that Jews relished in eating Christian flesh, with a particular liking for Christian hearts. Countless contemporary dramas involving Jews demonstrate this point. In John Day’s “Travels of Three English Gentlemen,” The Jewish Character Zeriph remarks: Sweet Gold, sweete jewel! But the sweetest Part of a Jewes feast is a Christian heart! Throughout the play Shakespeare reinforces this view and presents Shylock as almost hungering for Antonio’s flesh.
He remarks that he intends to take a pound of flesh “nearest his heart” and comes disconcertingly close to describing a “Jewes feast” in Act 3 scene 1 by remarking Antonio’s flesh shall “feed” his revenge. This again can be seen as evidence of Shakespeare using common Jewish prejudice to isolate Shylock from the Christian audience and ensure he is disliked and that his downfall brings about a comic and satisfying ending. One final superstition that Shakespeare employed when creating Shylock is that of Jews as allies with Satan.
In popular Elizabethan drama it was typical for Jews to make deals such as allowing demons to inhabit their bodies for a period of time in exchange for money and power. Often these plans were to the detriment of the Christian characters in the play. In Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta,” the character Ferneze remarks that “in the name of the devil, Barabas has stained his hands with blood many times. ” Throughout the play, Shakespeare repeatedly makes use of this common belief to help portray his stereotypical comic villain. In Act 1 scene 3 Antonio responds to Shylock’s speech in which Biblical passages are mentioned by remarking:
The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek. Antonio is made to attack Shylock’s use of scripture and reminds Bassanio that the Jew is only using holy text for a devilish purpose. Shakespeare furthers Shylock’s isolation by not only suggesting he inwardly detests Christianity as seen in Act 1 Scene 2, but also that his outward respect and knowledge of the faith is merely a means by which he can achieve a nefarious aim. Further comparisons are drawn between Shylock and the Devil in Act 3 scene 1 when Shylock encounters Solanio and Salarino.
On his entrance to the stage Solanio remarks “let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. ” The image of Shylock as a satanic figure is reinforced later in scene when Shylock states that his daughter is “damned” for her betrayal and conversion to Christianity. To this the Christian character Salarino remarks “that’s certain – if the devil be her judge. ” In total Shakespeare makes reference to Jews as demonic figures a total of nine times within “The Merchant of Venice.
” In drawing on yet another common prejudice towards Jews Shakespeare heightens the audience’s impression of this comic villain and can be seen as refusing to avoid any of the contemporary prejudices towards Jews when portraying Shylock. As with all comic villains in Shakespeare’s drama, Shylock is allowed to explain himself to the other characters in his “Hath Not” speech in Act III Scene I. In the speech he highlights the fundamental similarities between Jews and Christians stating “if you prick us do we not bleed? ” and so on.
This is often seen as proof that Shakespeare wished to portray Shylock as a tragic, sympathetic character far beyond the two-dimensional plane of “comic-Jews” as seen in contemporary Elizabethan drama. Indeed his speech seems a plea for toleration and acceptance in a prejudice society and this strikes a chord amongst modern, enlightened audiences. However we must distance ourselves from perhaps our contemporary interpretations of towards Shakespeare as a playwright and examine the speech and the message Shylock delivers within it.
The speech begins by Shylock stating Antonio “was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look to his bond. ” These opening lines alienate Shylock from his Christian audience as he states Antonio is to be punished for acting out of “Christian courtesy” or goodwill. Here Shakespeare reinforces Shylock’s contempt for generosity as seen elsewhere in Act II scene I and Act II scene II where he describes Antonio as both “a fool” and “acting in low simplicity” for “lending money gratis.
” Within the opening lines of the speech Shakespeare ensured that Shylock remained isolated from his audience. As well as beginning on a note of punishment and revenge, Shakespeare also ensures that the speech ends on a similar theme. Shylock remarks that the “villainy you teach me I shall execute and it shall go hard. ” Again Shylock remarks that he shall punish the Christian Antonio and that the punishment shall go beyond even the Jewish code of “an eye for an eye” but rather the punishment shall “go hard.
” It seems that if Shakespeare wished to “fight the corner of Judaism” in the speech then he has chosen to do so in a highly unusual manner with Shylock making constant reference to the punishment of Antonio. Sympathisers with Shylock not only overlook the beginning and end of this speech, they also miss the undercurrent, or thread that runs throughout. By constantly underlining the similarities between Jews and Christians – “subject to the same diseases” and so on – Shylock highlights that from a Jew punished you may expect the same as from a Christian punished.
Rather than pleading for equality Shylock reminds us in this speech that a Jew has the same “passions” as a Christian and so is hurt equally, and has the same “hands” as Christians to avenge this hurt. Since Jews “resemble Christians” then they can return all the pain they receive from them, but in richer measure. His speech is a defence of revenge and of what he plans to do, however as modern humanitarians we read it as a defence of his race from prejudice and a plea for equal treatment. Shylock’s downfall in Act IV scene I reveals perhaps most clearly the attitude Shakespeare wished us to have towards the Jew.
In the scene Shylock ignores all pleas for mercy from the Christian characters, who remark “mercy is an attribute of God himself,” and continues with his plans for the “dearly bought” pound of flesh. However before Shylock’s plans come to fruition, a “learned judge” prevents him and twists the case so that it is he who must kneel and “beg for mercy” from Antonio. At this point we witness how Shakespeare ensures Antonio is by contemporary standards incredibly merciful. Antonio accepts Shylock’s pleas for mercy on the grounds that he “presently become a Christian.
” Although by modern standards this may seem unjust, it would have been seen in the Elizabethan era as extraordinarily generous of Antonio as it would have enabled Shylock to achieve salvation and enter into paradise. Many members of Shakespeare’s audience would see this as too generous and feel that the sinful soul of Shylock should be barred the opportunity to enter into heaven. The playwright uses Antonio’s charitableness to ensure that the play ends on a note highlighting the “difference of spirit” between the Christian and Jewish peoples.
Contemporary audiences would have left consistent in their belief that Christians were altruistic and “turned the other cheek” following mercy and love as guiding principles whereas Jews sought revenge and money. Although Shylock is not perhaps as monstrous or as simple as most contemporary Jewish villains in Elizabethan drama, his language and actions demonstrate that he was devised by Shakespeare to be held in contempt by his audience. Shylock as a character obeys all of the common stereotypes towards Jews in his avarice, simplicity of language, fondness of Christian hearts and rumoured dealings with the Devil.
Shakespeare as a dramatist could not have played a lone hand in the creation of a Jewish character, but rather Shylock is a hybrid of the creative genius of the playwright and the historical framework – both literary and political – in which he lived. Despite our more enlightened views on Jewish people we must appreciate Shakespeare as a product of his own times who was well aware of both the established traditions of his art and the rooted prejudices of his public. Indeed it is with great reluctance that we state Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, who used popular prejudice for popular plays however we must follow Alexander Pope’s advice.