Many Theatrical Producers are Uncomfortable about Staging “The Merchant of Venice” because of suggestions that it Portrays Jews Unfairly
Jews first began to arrive in England in the Middle Ages to escape persecution from the Normans in France. They were allowed to remain in England by Henry I in return for a large percentage of their profits from either trade or money lending. Since the amount of money they owed the king was so high they found that in order to gain a healthy profit themselves, very high interest rates needed to be charged on the money lent out.
However Jews were not welcomed by the Christian population as they did not agree with their religion or their professions. Also Christians believed that that it was the Jews who were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. However in 1254 while under the reign of King Edward I, Jews who refused to convert or conform to Christianity were ordered out of England. They could not return to England until late in the seventeenth century. Now attitudes towards Jews have become very different. Ever since World War 2 and the Holocaust, people feel very sympathetic towards Jews, since for many it is still a very sensitive issue.
In the play “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock is portrayed as one of these Jews who lends money with extremely high interest rates and he is despised by almost all of Venice for being a villainous Jew with no feelings for anybody but himself.
Throughout the play we are made to think of Shylock as being cold, unbending, and evil, therefore possibly making the play seem anti-Semitic. The first example of this is when Shylock speaks to the audience about Antonio, aside from both him and Bassanio.
“I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation,”
Shylock then proceeds to lock Antonio, his rival money lender into a bond, where if he is unable to pay back the borrowed amount, Shylock is to be given a pound of flesh taken from nearest Antonio’s heart. The next example is just before Shylock is about to go out “to feed upon
the prodigal Christian.”
“Hear you me, Jessica:
Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then,
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces”
Shylock warns Jessica to lock the doors and not to look out on the street at the Christians, he even tells her not to hear the party going on outside. The next example is from when Shylock implies that his daughter is not as important to him as his ducats and precious stones. He runs through the streets shouting,
“I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!”
Here Shylock is claiming how he would rather have his daughter dead as long as he could get his jewels and money back, this portrays Shylock in an even worse light than he is already viewed in.
Although there is evidence of anti-Semitism depicted in “The Merchant of Venice”, if we look more closely at the text we can see that Shylock isn’t entirely the antagonist that he is made out to be. Firstly the hatred Shylock has for Antonio is not one sided; Antonio loathes Shylock just as much but not for the same reasons. Antonio’s hatred is based on prejudice alone, unlike Shylock’s which is based on all the name-calling, spiting and loss of trade from Antonio’s no interest money lending business.
When his daughter Jessica eloped taking all her father’s ducats and jewellery, including a ring of immense sentimental value, Shylock can not help feeling great resentment towards her. The ring was received by Shylock as a gift from his late wife and he has always treasured it. He cannot prevent his bitterness from growing, when he discovers that she swapped the ring for a pet monkey, the ring he said that he wouldn’t have traded “for a wilderness of monkeys.”
Probably the strongest piece of evidence for Shylock being shown as human is when he questions Antonio’s hatred for him.
“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…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?”
When Shylock speaks this very important speech he is saying that they are all the same, just different religions, he then goes on in his speech to question the laws of the society he lived in and how they can be different for Jews and Christians if they are both ultimately the same. This was a very risky although effective technique that Shakespeare used in order to show his audience that Jews were human too, if the Queen or audience had become offended at the suggestion of being the same as Jews he could well have been in great trouble.
“If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.”
In the court scene, there is no denying that Shylock meant to take the life of Antonio while collecting the forfeit. Nevertheless he was very angry, he had lost everything including his daughter and he needed something or someone to take out all his frustrations out on and when the opportunity arrived he grabbed it with two hands. At Shylock’s last appearance in the play he has lost everything dear to him, including his religion.
In conclusion I think that although outwardly the play seems to display anti-Semitic views, Shakespeare tries to make Shylock human to his audience, not just an evil Jew who gets what was always coming to him and therefore challenges anti-Semitic views that were current to when the play was written. In doing so he wrote a play which can help us shield against prejudices in present day society.