Shakespeare’s ”Merchant of Venice” shows the anti-Semitism of Christians. The Elizabethan did not like the Jews due to the biblical history that the Jews helped to kill Jesus. The Jews were hated, they had to do dirty jobs and were resented for it. They were forbidden to own property or engage in any professions. The Jews also practised usury – lending money with profit, and were hated for that. The Christians adhered to Jesus’ commandment to lend money ”looking for nothing again” and forbade asking for interest or even the principal investment back.
Shylock is a Jew and a professional moneylender. He is hated due to his religion and profession of usury. Shylock is bent on the murder of Antonio, who has borrowed the money for a friend Bassanio, if he does not payback his money on the day due. Antonio is in serious danger when shylock insists that he would not take the money but his pound of flesh. The help of Portia who disguised herself as the young lawyer saves Antonio.
The anti-Semitism shown in this play is the way the Jews and Christians relate. In Venice, Shylock is hated due to his Jewish religion and his profession – money lending. The Christians treat the Jews with injustice and cruelty. Shylock is aware that the discrimination bestowed upon him is due to his religion as he says; ”I am a Jew”.
In Act 3 scene 1, the behaviour of Antonio and others towards Shylock makes us feel sorry for him. Antonio abused him both verbally and physically. Antonio called him ”a mis-believer”, which links us back to the idea that the Jews helped to kill Jesus and ”cut-throat dog”, which shows that he is seen as an animal. He also spat on Shylock. Antonio is still not sorry for his abuse to Shylock when he goes to borrow the money for Bassanio but urges Shylock, with words that he will regret to ”lend it rather to thine enemy, who if he break, thou may’st with better face exact penalty”.
Antonio also says that he is likely to abuse Shylock-”I am like to call thee again, to spit on thee, to spurn thee too”. Shylock is reduced to something inhuman. Shylock is not referred to as a man but an animal. Gratiano curses Shylock with ”O be thou damned inexcreable dog” (IV, I, 120) whose currish spirit govern”d a wolf and whose ”desires are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous”(IV, I, 137-138).
Also Shylock is called ”a stony adversary, inhuman wretch”. This describes him as someone hardhearted. He has been stripped of his humanity and his religious identity. Shylock is not only denied of his humanity, he is also identified as the devil. Lancelot Gabbo identifies Shylock as ”a kind of devil”, ”the very devil incarnation”. Solanio sees him as ”the devil…in the likeness of a Jew”. All these abuse arises from the fact that Shylock is a Jew. The word ‘devil’ portrays him as an evil man with wicked mind.
Shylock is given the title, “Jew”. Throughout the whole play he is referred to by his name, only three times: in the trial scene, the Duke identifies Shylock by name and Portia identifies him once. Shylock is referred to as a “Jew”. This title is modified with an image such as “dog Jew” (II, iii, 14) and “currish Jew” (IV, I, 290). The word ”Dog” describes Shylock as an animal.
All these abuses, Shylock is going through makes us feel sorry for him. Not only does it make him feel insecure, it also reduces him to something less than human.
On the other hand, there are certain quotations and actions that make us hate Shylock. Shylock hates Antonio obviously because he is a Christian and he lends money for gratis. When Antonio goes to borrow money from Shylock in order to give his friend Bassanio who needs the money to woo Portia because he wants too marry her, Shylock agrees to give Antonio the “three thousand ducats” and will charge no interest but insists that “if you (Antonio) repay(s) me (Shylock) not on such a day…let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your (Antonio’s) fair flesh…” (I, iii, 142-145).
When Shylock says says that ”Antonio is a good man”. The word good has different implications: Bassanio thinks that it refers to his friend’s (Antonio) character and is angry that a man like Shylock should judge his friend. Shylock realises that he has succeeded in annoying Bassanio hastens to explain that by ‘good’ he meant sufficient as in ”financially sound”.
Bassanio seems to be right to caution Antonio to suspect “fair terms” and a villain mind. At the end of Act three, scene one Shylock reveals his true motive “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit for were he but of Venice I can make what merchandise I will”. This suggests that Shylock is bent on murder from the outset of his bond with Antonio. Shylock believes that Antonio hinders him from making more profit, so getting rid of him would be a better way for him to make profit.
Shylock was also glad when he heard of Antonio’s financial ruin. He said
“I’m very glad of it I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him,
I am glad of it ” (III, I, 116-117).
The repetition of ”glad shows how happy he is. During Shylocks trial, he thinks that he’s getting justice as he says,
“A Daniel comes to judgement yea o Daniel!
O wise young, how do I honour thee! ”
Shylock thinks he is getting justice. During the trial, he loses the audience sypathy by his words and by the action of sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe.
He also sharpens his knife, rejoicing at the prospect of cutting Antonio’s chest. When sentence is given against Antonio, he repeats the words of the bond, -“Ay ‘his breast’, so says the bond…’nearest the heart’…”. These also create the image of the murderous Jew. When Shylock was offered to “Take thrice thy money” he refused, insisting on his bond. This shows that his motive for the bond with Antonio is murder.
When Shylock’s Daughter Jessica disappears with a Christian, Lorenzo he laments over his daughter, money and the jewellery she stole.
”My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
O my daughter! Fled with a Christian!
Shylock’s passion is confused .He equalises his daughter and his money, he doesn’t seem to show that his daughter is more important than the and jewellery as he says-”A diamond cost me four thousand ducats …”. Shylock is very sorrowful due to the loss of his daughter and we have sympathy for him as he says that his daughter is his flesh and blood -”…daughter is my flesh and blood”
Racism can be seen from the outset of Act 4 scene 1. The Duke calls Shylock ”a Stony Adversary”,”an inhuman wretch”. The word ”stony” presents Shylock as a wicked person and ”inhuman” degrades him to something useless and an animal. These abuse stems from the fact that his a Jew.
Shylock also has racist opinion. In Act 1 scene 3 Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian and mentioning this in the court would not be advantageous to Shylock and that is why he never expresses his opinions. Shylock has confidence that he will have Antonio’s ”pound of flesh”. Shylock wants Justice but cannot give mercy. When the Duke asks him how he can expect mercy without ”rendering none”, Shylock responds that he does not need mercy because he has justice on his side- ” what judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong”. There is a dramatic irony here as the Duke grants him mercy at the end of the play.
He (Duke) did not take his life for attempting to take the life of Antonio. Shylock tries to show that mercy and justice are not linked; he believes this because he is a Jew. Portia speaks to Shylock about Justice without mercy. She says that mercy is not only a part of justice but is the main aspect to God because God shows mercy in his justice- ”it is an attribute to God himself”. She reminds Shylock that no one deserves salvation and would never receive it without God’s mercy therefore if we hope to receive mercy we should render it to others, but Shylock continues to demand for justice.
Portia informs Shylock that he has violated Venetian law by ”seeking the life of a citizen ”. Therefore his property now belongs to the state. Shylock is being punished for his paganism and evil action because he is not a Christian. She asks him if he is contented and he says ”I am content”. I think Shylock doesn’t mean it. He is ashamed because he has been stripped of his wealth and pride. He doesn’t know what to do and becomes very hopeless as he tells them ”I am not well”. He can’t imagine himself in the position of not having any property and worst of all loosing his identification, which is his Jewish religion.
In my own opinion, I don’t think Shakespeare intended to be anti-Semitic. He wanted to show the attitudes towards the Jews through the way Shylock was abused verbally and physically; therefore he used Shylock as a mouthpiece to speak out against racist attitudes. Shakespeare also wants to show the importance of being merciful. If Shylock were merciful to Antonio he would not have lost his property and religion. I think Shylock’s behaviour is justifiable because the Christians have mentally and physically abused him and he has been used because they wanted his money but still rendered abuses on him. Therefore, his behaviour towards Antonio is a way of vengeance for the abuses he has suffered.
Shylocks behaviour can be condemned because he could have forgiven Antonio instead of insisting on taking Antonio’s life, but he ended up loosing his property. Shakespeare used this to show the importance of forgiveness and educate people about different cultures because at the time of Shakespeare the population were not accustomed to foreigners.