The Merchant of Venice: A Tale Lost in Time

Updated on November 19, 2018
SayaEducation profile image

Author Sarah Cabucos writes successful analytical essays and term papers for schools. She comes from Brisbane, Australia.

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

An analytical essay by Sarah Cabucos

Romeo, Hamlet, Shylock - are a handful of Shakespeare’s characters whose names are instantly recognisable. A "Romeo" is now a persistent romancer rather than a lover faithful unto death and a "Hamlet" is an indecisive over thinker. The Merchant of Venice’s “Shylock” is no longer a greedy moneylender but, I would argue, a victim of racial oppression. These ‘Shakespearean’ archetypes have ventured so far from their original context but more important are the very changes marked by these appropriations, telling a revealing story about the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in our modern milieu, let alone the English Studies syllabus.

Society immemorial has suffered from the farce that tradition is the foundation of significance and The Merchant of Venice has not escaped this; it is no longer worthy of the gravity it holds in our education system. It’s a story of a humanity populated by characters who speak of profound concepts- ones that we now perceive as “naturally” true: ideas about human character, integrity, about men and women, about youth and respect. However, as a student, I struggled to glean moral significance from the words of deceitful characters whose hypocrisy undermines these messages; whose portrayed ‘valour’ is now steeped in anti-Semitic and sexist rhetoric. Whilst the fundamental values of The Merchant of Venice are still pivotal, the natural evolution of societal sensitivities have made this play into something I believe it was never intended to be. Trapped in bygone times, it reads now as a historical timepiece rather than an effective moral study.

When William Shakespeare devised the character of a socially-alienated Jew and wrote a plot around Semitic discrimination, he did not know the context it was going to bear in a post-holocaust society. Indeed, the play showcases the triumph of religious hypocrisy and naively glorifies Christianity as the salvation of Judaism. Lost amongst a merciful motif, the Merchant of Venice tells us that we are only to be good to those who share our religious or racial standings. That if an individual be of some other race, creed, or religion, then we are justified in “spit[ting] on thee, [in] spurn[ing] thee too” (I, iii).

Portia speaks of the heavenly quality of merciful justice, yet she eagerly upholds the humiliation of Shylock under a ‘merciful’ pretence. To exhibit the mercy that Portia spoke of, Antonio should have let the law take its course and simply take what was his. Instead, we see Shylock deprived of his humanity by characters who just established that mercy is a quality “droppeth as the gentle rains from heaven” (IV, i). Yes, Antonio is often heroized for sparing Shylock’s life, but what we have failed to whole-heartedly realise is that he also stole from Shylock his Jewish identity. What is humanity without identity? What is a person without a face? He stole from Shylock that which made him Shylock.

I’ve been told time and time again about the significance of Portia’s soliloquy. And I can’t stand here and deny the moral potency of her words, but I want us to ask ourselves: do we define mercy today as denying someone of their cultural identity? Do we define mercy today as forcing our own ideals onto someone else? If your answer is no, then how can we continue to extract meaning from Portia’s plea for mercy, coming from a character who we can now see was an avid proponent of anti-Semitism. Her speech is often glorified in schools for her powerful words, yet she bends in the winds of racial discrimination when given the chance to show her own definition of mercy; a hypocritical bigot makes for a weak platform for virtue.

Adding another layer to this religious hypocrisy, The Merchant of Venice presents us with an outdated patriarchy overruled by anti-Semitism. The script reinforces that desirable women are obedient to the men in their lives, except if you are Jewish. This is embodied by Jessica who is adorned by Christian men for disrespecting her father, deemed “wise, fair and true” (II, vi) by Lorenzo. But it doesn’t add up...where Portia’s desirability is entwined with her compliance to her father’s will, Jessica’s applauded disrespect for the patriarchy is only so because her father is Jewish. The recurring subplot of Christian salvation reneges on the values of Elizabethan England, revealing the religious hypocrisy of the ‘antagonists’- where the precondition of Jessica and Lorenzo’s love is her “becom[ing] a Christian” (II, iii) and deserting her father.

We live in a world where religion has snuck into the shadows of our culture as a taboo subject, as a platform for violence and extremism. As of 2017, 34.1% of migrants experienced racism on our public transport and 43% believe that all boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back (SBS, 2018). Racism is clearly so alive in our society today, perhaps we should stop teaching a text with a racially divisive narrative as the flagship for moral discussions in our classrooms. And if you still believe in traditionalism of The Merchant of Venice- consider this: why do you not find yourself laughing at a play originally written as a comedy?

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)