Anti Semitism in the Merchant of Venice

I believe Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice is an antisemitic play. This play is about a Jew named Shylock who makes a deal with a christian named Antonio. I do not believe the play was meant to be that way.

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In Shakespeare’s time things like sexism and discrimination because of religions were just parts of a normal day; people didn’t even realize those things were there because that was normal to them. I believe when writing the Merchant Of Venice Shakespeare was trying to make the plot of the story interesting, and didn’t have intentions of making the play anti semitic.

In the play, Shylock, the Jew, is not portrayed in a very sympathetic way. He was written to be the antagonist, or the villian of the story. He is the representative of Jewish people in the play, so the hostility against him leads me to believe this play is anti semitic. Shylock is the one creating all of the conflict in the play.

“On the Elizabethan stage, Jews were stock villains, caricatures left over from the “Vice” tradition of medieval Passion Plays, frequently outfitted with comedy noses and grotesque curly red wigs, proudly boasting of poisoning wells and murdering sick people in their beds.” (Daniel 52–56)

When portrayed in plays, the Jews were the villains; they wore funny clothes and wigs and were always up to no good. (Daniel 52–56)

Another aspect of the play that leads me to believe it is anti semitic is the treatment Shylock receives from the other characters. While in the streets he is spat on by Antonio. At another point in the play Antonio also calls him the devil: “Mark you this, Bassanio, The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose!” (1.3.107-8) After treating him poorly, Antonio goes to Shylock expecting help: “Perhaps he does not take Shylock’s penalty-the pound of flesh- seriously: that is, he regards it as an interest-free loan.”

(Rosenshield 28–51) Antonio does not take Shylock seriously and thinks he is joking, that’s why he goes along with the deal. If he respected Shylock and trusted his word, he might have not made the deal.

Even Shylock’s own flesh and blood, his daughter Jessica, treats him with no respect and steals all of his wealth. She even stole and traded the ring of Shylock’s deceased wife, one of his last memories of her. After disrespecting him by stealing his wealth, she disobeys him by running away from him to and marrying a christian. She was ashamed to be Jewish and would do anything to get away from her past so she could become Christian and live a better life. There is one scene in the play where Shylock’s servant, Lancelot, contemplates leaving him because he is a Jew. Eventually after much self-contemplation, Lancelet decides to abandon the Jew. After leaving Shylock, Lancelet goes to work for Bassanio.

Another way Shylock was depicted in an unappealing manner was how Shakespeare made him greedy. He was a moneylender and his wealth was everything to him. When his daughter Jessica went missing, Salarino and Solanio, two Christians, were out in the streets mocking him for losing all his money.

“My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter, A sealèd bag, two sealèd bags of ducats. Of double ducats, stol’n from me by my daughter, And jewels- two stones, two rich and precious stones- Stol’n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl! She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.” (2.8.15-23)

When Jessica ran away with Shylock’s wealth, finding her was not his only concern. He was also worried about his money. In the quote above Solanio mentions Shylock’s desire to get back his ducats more than he mentions wanting to find his daughter. This leads the reader/ watcher to believe that Shylock, as the parent of Jessica, would rather get back his wealth than get back his daughter.

When in court to take the flesh of Antonio, Shylock is begged by the Christians to let him live. The Christians stress the importance of mercy, trying to persuade him to take three times the money Antonio owed him and let him live, until Portia reveals that blood can not be taken with the flesh. This law is a loophole that was used to protect Antonio and hurt Shylock. When the flesh can no longer be taken, Shylock tries to accept the money, which makes him look greedy, but is forced by the Christians to accept his punishment and convert to christianity. They asked him for mercy, but when it was Antonio’s turn to decide Shylock’s fate, he was merciless and not only made him convert to christianity, but made half his wealth go to the government, and the other half go to Lorenzo, the Christian that married his daughter. This was considered “ok” because at the time this play was being performed Jewish people were considered less than Christian people, so it wasn’t a big deal that Shylock was being hurt by this deal, because he was Jewish.

I believe Shakespeare was trying to make the play interesting, and made it anti semitic unintentionally. Reading the play made me sympathize more with the Christians because of how they were portrayed versus Shylock. Bassanio and Antonio were described to be kinder and friendlier than Shylock. Antonio risked his life so Bassanio could win the heart of his true love. In my opinion, it’s all about perspective. We just saw the story from the perspective of the christians, but maybe if the story was told from the perspective of Shylock, the Christians would be the ones that seemed like the villains.

Works Cited

  1. Wilson, Robert J. “Censorship, Anti-Semitism, and ‘The Merchant of Venice.'” The English Journal, vol. 86, no. 2, 1997, pp. 43–45. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/819672.
  2. Rosenshield, Gary. “Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and ‘The Merchant of Venice.'” Shofar, vol. 20, no. 2, 2002, pp. 28–51. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42943356.
  3. Daniel, Drew. “William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” Film Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, 2006, pp. 52–56. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2006.60.1.52.
  4. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42943356?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=antisemitism&searchText=in&searchText=merchant&searchText=of&searchText=venice&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dantisemitism%2Bin%2Bmerchant%2Bof%2Bvenice%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bgroup%3Dnone&refreqid=search%3Ab0efe92165e19827d1fc2476ebcd2e37&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
  5. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2006.60.1.52?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Shakespeare&searchText=anti&searchText=semitism&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DShakespeare%2Banti%2Bsemitism&seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
  6. https://www.jstor.org/stable/819672?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=anti&searchText=semitism&searchText=merchant&searchText=of&searchText=venice&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Danti%2Bsemitism%2Bmerchant%2Bof%2Bvenice&refreqid=search%3A31309722708f94b43010fd06c9c677fa&seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents
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