Anti-Semitic abuse. It is believed to have been based around an Italian short story written in the fourteenth century. It included many similarities such as the “lady of Belmont”, or as she is known in Shakespeare’s rendition, Portia. Although the lady of Belmont sets a different task for her suitors, the core events of “The Merchant of Venice” are in there such as the young man who borrowed money from his benefactor to see the woman of his dreams.
The benefactor had to pledge a pound of flesh to a Jewish moneylender. The story of the two rings is also apparent. Shakespeare is also said to have used some of the ideas from Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta”. One of the reasons that Jews were despised was because of a famous trial that occurred not long before the play’s release. The trial involved Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I and her physician, one Doctor Lopez.
The doctor was accused of high treason and subsequently executed. I think that this would have given Jewish people a bad reputation, even if the allegations were not true. Also lending money and charging interest, known as usury, was frowned upon as uncharitable and unchristian. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses clever linguistic devices, such as metaphors, similes and puns, to great effect. Puns are a slightly comical plays on a word, or using a word with a double meaning.
All through the play there are many puns but I especially like the one on the word “gentile” meaning not Jewish, and “gentle” meaning kind and good, this particular pun is found in the courtroom scene, when the Duke says to Shylock “We expect a gentle answer, Jew” there is a play on the words Gentile and gentle, and the character of the Duke is used to point out to the audience that the expected answer must also please the gentiles or Christians that require it. There is also a play on the word “Adieu” meaning goodbye and the phrase “a Jew”, once again at the expense of Shylock.
When we are first introduced to Shylock I felt sympathetic because according to his version of the events in the Rialto, the Venetian Stock Exchange, Shylock was minding his own business when Antonio arrived and started to insult him. He insulted Shylock about many aspects of his life; his business dealings, his friends and even his religion. Antonio calls him a “cut throat dog” and he previously spat on Shylock’s Jewish gabardine. When Antonio, along with Bassanio, asks Shylock for a loan of three thousand ducats Shylock asks why he should agree to a loan.
In response Antonio tells him not to make the loan as a friend but” rather to thine enemy”. Before this, Shylock’s sly and evil side becomes apparent when he says “if I can catch him on the hip” which I interpret to mean that Shylock is hoping to catch Antonio out and take revenge for past slights. I believe Shylock sees this loan as a means of exerting power over a desperate Christian who will then be beholden to him. For once, because of the debt, Antonio will be dependent on him for money and maybe, he wanted Antonio’s life from the start.
After the longer intense scenes, the audience would have needed a little comical interlude and Shakespeare presents this in the form of Gobbo’s dilemma. ‘Good’ Launcelot is arguing with his conscience about whether to run away from his master Shylock or stay and be mistreated and starved. In fact, Launcelot is fed so little, he says “you may tell every finger I have with my ribs”. This type of muddled speech is used by Shakespeare to denote the lower classes and was used in other plays. Bottom in “A Midsummer Night Dream” is one example of this type of linguistic device.
The fact that Launcelot claims that Shylock mistreats him contributes to the already negative image of Shylock, but who is telling the truth? The ‘good’ and honest Christian or the filthy money lending Jew? When Jessica exclaims she is “ashamed to be my fathers child”, I think this is because of her religion, as she is her father’s child, it makes her Jewish and therefore unable to marry the Christian she loves, unless she converts to Christianity. I do not think she is deeply ashamed, I think she just resents her religion, rather than her parentage. In act 2, scene 8, Salerio and Solanio discus Shylock’s actions after Jessica’s flight.
They mimic his words and inform us that he runs around distraught and panic stricken saying “My daughter! O my ducats, O my daughter! Fled with a Christian”. This gives me the impression that Shylock’s main priority is his money, rather than his daughter. In this scene, I think he shows characteristics similar to those of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ play “A Christmas Carol”. Scrooge is a very morose character and is concerned only by financial gain. He despises Christmas because of the expense and just makes more works, balancing accounts and other such things.
Shylock is similar to this because I think he would dislike Christmas because it is a Christian event, and, like Scrooge, because of the cost. He is preoccupied with money a lot of the time. So much in fact, that he thinks of money in his sleep when he tells us that he “did dream of money bags tonight”. I would have thought that Jessica running away would have acted as a wake up call to Shylock, telling him that “All that glisters is not gold” and money is not everything. In act 3, scene 1, Salerio and Solanio are talking about a rumor that is going round: One of Antonio’s vessels has been shipwrecked.
Shylock enters and is questioned about whether or not he will cut the pound of flesh which he claims to own. Shylock goes into a large speech and points out that Jewish people have feelings too, and like anyone else, they are hurt with the same weapons, eat the same food, and hunger for the same revenge as Christians. Shylock’s friend Tubal enters and tells Shylock about some news he heard about Jessica. At first, Shylock is ecstatic with the discovery but then he is informed that she has spent many of his precious ducats and sold his ring, from his now dead wife, Leah.
This is one of the many blows recently dealt to Shylock, which contribute to him being hell-bent on revenge. One of the play’s most famous scenes is just around the corner and in a last minute bid for mercy, Shylock agrees to speak with Antonio. Shylock ignores Antonio’s desperate plea for mercy and interrupts Antonio mid sentence with something along the lines of “I will have my bond, speak not against the bond” and it seems that he is deaf to all Antonio’s begging. Solanio points out that he cannot get through to the “impenetrable cur”. All seems lost. Antonio’s death seems imminent and Shylock has the law on his side.
What will happen next…? I think the courtroom scene is where Shylocks shows his remorseless and cruel side, made so by the endless jeers and taunts. He shoes no mercy towards Antonio and it seems nothing can be done. Portia and Nerissa devise a plan, to dress up as men and pose as the lawyer for the case. Portia remains unbiased despite the fact she wants Antonio to be cleared. Shylock is sharpening his knife on the sole of his foot when Gratiano states that it is “Not on thy sole, but on thy soul” which is yet another example of a linguistic devices, in this case, a pun.
She remarks that Shylock is perfectly within the law as “The law allows it, and the court awards it” and then Portia realizes the most significant loophole in the bond: no word of blood is mentioned. So if one drop of Antonio’s blood is spilled upon the ground, Shylock will be guilty of endangering a Venetian citizen’s life and he feels guilty. Shylock realizes his foolishness and hastily accepts the offer of “thrice the bond” in return for Antonio’s freedom. Just as Bassanio is about to hand over the money, Portia states that there is a penalty for not carrying out the bond.
The duke shows “difference in our spirit”, our being Christian, and reduces the fine to a penalty and he must give half his goods to Antonio. They eventually come to an agreement where Shylock gives half his belongings to Jessica and lover Lorenzo and that he leaves his belonging to them when he dies. The second point Antonio makes it that Shylock must convert to Christianity. Shylock quickly agrees and tells us “I am not well” and is excused from court, and that is the last we see of him.