Guniya is a final year undergraduate at the University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in writing and literature.
The Merchant of Venice continues to be a controversial play. Despite the Shakespearean genius that floats through it, there have been countless debates on its anti-semitic references. Themes of prejudice, intolerance, and usury entangle with the topical setting of the city of Venice to create an anti-semitic vibe. Especially usury and its connection with Jewishness that goes against the Christian idea of charity. Shakespeare uses these theological details to create a complex figure that is Shylock but also focuses on larger, cultural questions.
The process of demonisation is a two-way street in the play. Shylock thinks Christians are diabolical and, for the latter, he is a devil incarnate. The debate on the existence of antisemitism in the drama is between two groups of audience. One is the literary critics who defend it, maintaining that Shakespearean subtlety transcends antisemitism, pointing towards Shylock’s essential humanity and the fact that in the end, Shylock is humanised. The second is the general, Jewish readers who counter that Shylock’s humanisation is a plot device to enrich drama (Cohen, 1980).
The theme of ‘otherness’ that is present throughout the play fuels Venetian society’s obsession with Shylock. The contrast between the old testament and the new testament creates an atmosphere of ‘us and them’ that projects Shylock as the object of the Venetian Christians’ obsession. The unhealthy and prejudiced fixation of the society on Shylock unfairly makes him out to be the villain, but also because of its irrationality induces sympathy in the audience.
The play toys boldly with the anti-semitic tradition of Jewish Decide that forms the foundation of Christian hatred towards Jews. It points out how hate perpetually connects both the communities. However, in every instance, the Jew is shown to replicate/represent the distorted lifestyle of the Venetian society. And while all Jews are hated, the cynosure of it all in the play is one Jew in particular: Shylock.
The introduction to the figure of Shylock happens in Act 1, Scene 3. Initially, he comes off as a cold, dispassionate usurer, but as the scene progresses the undertones of tension and animosity between Shylock and Antonio come out with full force. Starting with references from the Bible to outright voicing their hatred for each other, neither of the men holds back. But, it is Shylock who comes off as vile, hateful and devilish when he demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as compensation lest the men fail to pay his money back,‘…let the forfeit/Be nominated for an equal pound/Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me.’ Here, Shylock does not come off as a satanic antichrist, even though he’s referred to as the ‘devil’ on multiple occasions in the play. Rather he comes off as a more realistic figure of an anti-Jesus: Jesus is generous, Shylock is usurious, Jesus offers his body, but Shylock demands the flesh of another (Heschel, 2006).
There are reasons for Shylock’s correspondence to the devil, the first being his race and the second his personality. His religion makes him the recipient of racial slurs, but it is his behaviour towards people who are close to him that gets him compared to the devil in a different light. For example, Launcelot in Act 2, Scene 2 seems keen on running away citing that his master is ‘the devil himself’. Launcelot’s repulsion to Shylock is partly because of the latter’s religion but also because of how he treats him.
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, in Scene 4 of the same Act, is planning on eloping with Lorenzo, a Christian. ‘Our house is hell…’ is what she says when she talks to Launcelot about running away. The comparison of her own house to hell portrays what she thinks of her father. Jessica’s hate and intolerance for Shylock do not come from racism or antisemitism, but from his behaviour towards her, which is overbearingly patriarchal and controlling.
Shylock’s vileness extends from his identity as a Jew. He, as a person, is portrayed to be so evil and nasty that his devilish nature has percolated down to even his daughter and servants, not just the Christians. This could imply that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock as a devilish entity is not inspired by his Jewishness, but his intrinsic wickedness regardless of religion. However, this does not exempt the number of times Judaism or Shylock’s identity as a Jew has been dragged through the mud in the play. Significantly, Shylock is called ‘Shylock’ only seventeen times in the play. On all other occasions, he is called ‘Jew’ or referred to as ‘The Jew’ (Cohen, 1980). This reduces his identity to a pagan or heathen. He is not considered human because of the faith he follows.
Shakespeare, throughout the play, is consistent in reinforcing the already established ideas about Jews, especially the negative ones. But this can be perceived as a dramatic effect. The repetition might not be to convince the reader that Shylock is evil, but perhaps to make them question the prejudice. Nevertheless, it still does not excuse the blatant demonisation of Jews and Judaism, nor does it justify the Christian supremacy that airs around in the play. Themes of intolerance and majoritarianism are strengthened at the end when Shylock is punished to be converted. The idea of conversion simply unveils the existing bigotry, fanaticism, and antisemitism; that to live peacefully among the majority (Christians), the minority (Jews) must convert. This end to the play is neither harmonious nor reconciliatory.
From a distance, Shylock’s humanisation proves to be the only saving grace of the supposed anti-semitic narrative. Even if it is done for dramatic enrichment, it tells the story of the ‘other’ and that is what matters. While Shylock seems to be the villain of the story, his fiendish character does generate sympathy. He possesses a sense of pathos and humility which is not exhibited extravagantly but still leaves an impact. Shakespeare’s literary brilliance is showcased as he creates a pitiable villain. No matter how many horrible things Shylock does or how many people he makes miserable, the reader still feels sympathetic towards him, thinking: perhaps he (Shylock) is just a bitter, old man who, to survive among the evil, had to become eviler.
The first glimpse of Shylock’s humanity is shown in Act 3, Scene 1 which subtly shifts the play: ‘He hath disgraced me and hindered me a half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation and thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.’ In his emotional monologue, Shylock calls out the irrational, racist prejudice that Christians have against Jews. The prejudice and hate have no valid basis, it is not rational. He expresses the racial and theological concerns Christians have about Jews, which again, have no logic.
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As he continues, Shylock humanises the entire Jewish race. He doesn’t just speak for himself, but his entire community which has been subjected to hate and prejudice. This is a peek into Shylock’s heart that is perhaps not ‘all black'. Shylock exhibits vulnerability in the following speech: ‘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?’ This is also an analysis of prejudice and hate, and how it works in human society. It makes the reader ponder upon the basis of hate, which is nothing but irrationality. It stems from unimportant, superficial reasons. This scene can also be termed as the starting point of Shylock’s character development from ‘just a Jew’ to ‘Shylock’ if not for the Venetian society, then at least for the reader.
However, Shylock is most humanised in the ‘Court Scene’ when he belittled and berated. Ironically, it is not his pleadings or self-justifications that Shylock becomes a sympathetic figure, but it is his silent transformation from a crowing, blood-hungry monster to a quiescent victim whose fate lies in the hands of those he attempted to destroy (Cohen, 1980). At that moment, he does not come off as a villain. He is delineated as a broken man who has lost everything: his wealth, his daughter, his respect and his dignity.
Instances of Shylock’s demonisation hint that Shakespeare could have indeed been siding with Christians. But, occurrences of his humanisation convey that Shakespeare could also be making a plea for tolerance. Four centuries have passed and critics are still debating. Those who perceive the play in a purely negative light, look at it as a comedy. In contrast to those who sympathise with Shylock and look at it via the lens of tragedy. However, the plot is complex. To see how far the play can be pushed towards tragedy and still bring out a comic ending, Merchant of Venice flirts with tragedy (Cantor, 1987).
Shakespeare has written a masterpiece because it resonates so strongly with western culture’s master narrative of Jesus and his relationship with Judaism. (Heschel, 2006) The brilliance of his mind is transcendental. And, while it is a belief that literature should be read as just literature, it is also pivotal to dissect the complex undertones of themes and ideas in it. Merchant of Venice is a tortuously involuted play as it straddles the themes of prejudice and tolerance in Christianity and Judaism, continuing to be one of the most controversial works of the dramatist till date.
- Shakespeare, W., & Drakakis, J. (2010). The Merchant of Venice (Arden ed.). Bloomsbury Academic.
- Cohen, D. (1980). The Jew and Shylock. Shakespeare Quarterly, 31(1), 53-63. doi:10.2307/2869369
- CANTOR, P. (1987). RELIGION AND THE LIMITS OF COMMUNITY IN "THE MERCHANT OF VENICE". Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 70(1/2), 239-258. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41178412
- Heschel, S. (2006). From Jesus to Shylock: Christian Supersessionism and "The Merchant of Venice". The Harvard Theological Review, 99(4), 407-431. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4125264
The Merchant of Venice, Arden Edition that I used.
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© 2021 Guniya Sharma
Guniya Sharma (author) from India on May 16, 2021:
Thank you, Malvika
Malvika Mohan on May 16, 2021:
This is so detailed.......