The divide between Jews and Christians is an evident theme that develops at the start of Shakespeare’s ‘so called’ comedy, The Merchant of Venice. In the Venetian culture, the word “Jew” is almost always treated as a derogatory term. In the play, Jews are regarded as less than human in the predominantly Christian city, and Christians preach humility and kindness, but they only mean that to those that share the same beliefs.
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Jews pose a threat to the Christian city because they are outsiders and different. Those who are different often invoke fear from those who belong to the majority. By using allusion, rhetorical questions, and diction, Shakespeare demonstrates the similarities between the two groups of people that claim to be so different, and reveals the hypocrisy among the religious individuals.
Shakespeare uses allusion to demonstrate the hate that both main characters, Shylock and Antonio, have for each other, and to show how Shylock views himself in contrast to Antonio. For example, Shylock is a moneylender and Bassanio needs a loan from him. He ensures Shylock that Antonio will make sure that he will be repaid. In response, Shylock talks about how he sees Antonio and the hate he has for him. He claims, “How like a fawning publican he looks” (1.3.35) The term “fawning publican” alludes to the parable that can be found in the gospel of Luke. In this story a pharisee and a tax collector go to pray at a temple. The pharisee, obsessed with his own virtue, praises God for making him superior than sinners amongst him. The tax collector on the other hand, begs God for forgiveness and mercy, fully aware that he is a sinner. The point of this parable is to demonstrate that a Christian should pray humbly and not get caught up in their own moral superiority. In this allusion Antonio is the publican and Shylock is Christ. Antonio is asking for a favor, like the publican, putting Shylock in the position of power, when normally he is regarded to as lower class than Antonio. Shylock has a different perspective on what the parable means versus the perspective of a Christian. Shylock sees the publican as a man who was only trying to gain favor with God, despite normally “robbing” him. This simple phrase points out that Antonio would normally never associate with Shylock, but now that Bassanio needs the money, he is willing to flatter Shylock. Shylock goes on to say, “I hate him for he is a Christian” (3.1.36). Shylock does not hesitate to paint the picture clearly that he hates Antonio solely because of his religion The audience could potentially see Shylock as the villain here because he hates a man solely on his religion. However, Shylock says, “He hates our sacred nation.” (3.1.42). This makes it clear that the bad blood between the two runs both ways.
In his desperate plea to get the Christians to see him as a human being, Shylock uses rhetorical questions to evoke emotion from the audience. Shylock is speaking with Salarino and Solanio about the rumors of Antonio’s ships when he implies that he knows he will get his bond. Salarino wonders what Shylock will do with the pound of flesh that the bond calls for, as it has no value. He questions if Shylock will actually take the flesh from Antonio. Shylock then explains the reason he wants the pound of flesh so bad… revenge. He says, “He’s insulted me and cost me half a million ducats. He’s laughed at my losses, made fun of my earnings, humiliated my race, thwarted my deals, turned my friends against me, riled up my enemies? and why? Because I’m a Jew” (3.1.45-48). The language here reveals that Shylock is not the antagonist, society is. He is a man who has been constantly humiliated and degraded and he is tired of being on the bottom. He then goes on to plea, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do, we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die, and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (3.1.53-55) Of course if you prick a Jew they will bleed just like a Christian. Shylock is not looking for an answer, but looking for those to see him as human. This rhetorical question reveals hypocrisy on the side of the Christians. They preach humility and urge people to be kind, but Shylock brings up the concept of revenge, which is something Christians often reject. He implies that they are both human and not perfect. Seeking revenge on someone who has wronged you is part of human nature.
Although Portia can be considered an outsider, her inclusion of a larger group gives her an upper hand. While she is female, traditionally regarded as the lesser gender, and in most Shakespeare, plays depicted as weaker characters, she is Christian which puts her above Shylock. One could imagine that Portia would feel some sympathy for the Jewish Shylock because the world could be cruel to women as well, but with the trial, the audience realizes this is not the case. Portia begins by calling Shylock by his name, and then directly addresses him by using the word “you”. She says, “Of a strange nature is the suit you will follow. Yet in such rule that Venetian law cannot impugn you as you do proceed. You stand within his danger, do you not?” (4.1.175-178) In contrast, once Antonio confesses the bond she says, “Then must the Jew be merciful.” She first addresses him by his name just to be courteous, but then continues to refer to him as “The Jew” multiple times throughout her court appearance. While Portia disguises herself as a man so that she might get some agency in the courtroom, she still draws a clear line of who is superior. It’s obvious Portia would have bias, even in the courtroom the distinct groups of people are made.
While Shylock meets a tragic end, he manages to point out the hypocrisy of the Christians. The court scene is one of the most pivotal moments in The Merchant of Venice because it is perhaps where the most hypocrisy is revealed. From the start Shylock has the odds stacked against him, being a Jew in a Christian court. Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats, however Shylock refuses. He explains,
“What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong? You have among you many a purchase slave, which like your asses and your dogs and mules you use in abject and in slavish parts because you bought them. Shall I say to you, let them be free; marry them to your heirs! Why sweat they under burdens? Let their beds be made as soft as yours, and let their palates be seasoned with such viands? You will answer, the slaves are ours. So, do I answer you: The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ’tis mine, and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law: There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgement. Answer! Shall I have it?” (4.1.89-103).
He starts his speech out with judgement and ends it with judgement as well. Shakespeare chose this because Shylock is very concerned with a literal interpretation of the Law. Judgement is a word that can mean many different things. In the first line of his speech it refers to the opinions of the court. He is not particularly concerned if they understand why he wants the pound of flesh. Instead, he argues that he purchased it and under the laws of Venice, it is rightfully his. In the last line he is referring to justice, in the sense of the law being properly carried out. This twist is ironic because the literal interpretation of the law is what brings him injustice, even though at the beginning of the trial he thinks it is what will cause him to have justice and get his payment. Shylock also points out how they are being hypocrites. The Christians question why he has a right to flesh but, in a sense, they also own human flesh. While it may seem twisted, his very literal view wins him the argument for a short period of time.
One can view The Merchant of Venice as a controversial anti-Semitic play. However, one could also take it as Shakespeare calling out the hypocrisy of Christians. It is impossible to know exactly what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote this play, but if read as revelation on the hypocrisy surrounding religion and a critique on the us versus them mentality you can easily see how it is important theme, even in the modern world. Shylock brings up an interesting point that echoes throughout the world today, even though there are distinct groups of people, we are all human. The Merchant of Venice was labeled a comedy to the audience in Shakespeare’s time. However, to the modern eye it is easier to label it as a tragedy about a Jewish man, an outsider. Shylock does not have a happy end, however the end to his story does prove one final point. The Christians of Venice were constantly pushed the idea of mercy but when it came down to the final moment they forced a man to betray his homeland and convert to Christianity, because it is the only acceptable religion in their eyes.
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