The Merchant of Venice was written by William Shakespeare and includes a number of smaller stories linked together to produce one play. The ideas for these have been adapted by Shakespeare from other plays at the time. This play however, is seen by many to be racist, as the main theme of these stories is around the discrimination and revenge of a Jew named Shylock. In this essay I will discuss whether or not I feel that The Merchant of Venice is a racist play and how changes of attitude over time, have effected how these issues are looked upon.
Racism is a form of discrimination, a way of judging someone on their skin colour, nationality or origin. Racists feel that members of these ethnic minority races have lesser abilities than members of their own. It is because of the narrow minded-ness of these people racism is still a problem at today. However, the idea of racism is modern; the word race didn’t appear in the English dictionary until 1508. Before 1508 the world’s ancient societies divided people purely by religion, status and class; not by physical distinction. In Elizabethan times, the times of William Shakespeare, this would not have been such a big issue.
The discrimination shown in his plays would have just been treated as a technique the author used to invite the audience to dislike a certain character. Jews however were often shown as murderers in plays such as ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Take for example ‘The Jew of Malta,’ a play more successful at the time than Shakespeare’s. The main character in this play, written by Christopher Marlowe, was called Barabas and was shown as a sinister man. After Barabas’ money is confiscated by the Christian government of Malta he commits hideous murders and evil deeds whilst seeking revenge.
The most heinous of these is when he poisons a number of nuns and then mutters, “how sweet the bells ring now the nuns are dead. ” Barabas is shown as a cartoon character or a clown by what he wears in the play. When interpreted in acted plays he might have been wearing a bright red wig and a false nose which is a parody of a clown. To exaggerate this Barabas’ would always show a large amount of energy and humour on stage. As well as being shown as a murderous villain, the humour that he showed would also encourage the audience to like as well as dislike him.
This technique is used by Shakespeare in the same manner, but he does not use humour, he brings out sympathetic feelings in the audience for Shylock at certain times in the play. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is seen as a comedy, but one that delves very deeply into a number of other styles. Racism is one of these. I think it is possible that Shakespeare did not want to portray his play as a comedy otherwise people would come to see it without thinking about the undertones and messages hidden within. I believe he did not classify Jews as sub-human and did not want to use the word Jew in a way that could be described as racist.
Some of the lines that are highly controversial now, may have seemed fine to a Christian audience and to Shakespeare at the time. It is for this reason I believe he wanted to change the unbending attitudes of the populace of the time. He attempts to promote equality more than once during the play which would have been dangerous to do during that era that he was alive, because it was not openly accepted. When the Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket Portia says “a gentle riddance” which in itself is not a racist comment, people can offer opinions whether they do or do not wish to marry someone.
However, the following comment of “let all of his complexion choose me so” can be considered racist by the modern audience whilst the Elizabethan audience would not have considered it so. Shakespeare may have been referring to the Prince’s status and class rather than race but I do not think this is so. But apart from other minor racial comments ‘The Merchant of Venice’ centres on two main characters, Antonio, an wealthy merchant and Shylock, an extremely wealthy Jew who cares more for his money than for his own daughter.
Antonio needs to borrow three thousand duckets from Shylock and on this they agree a bond. In Venice, your word was your bond. A promise made by word of mouth was the same as having an agreement in writing you had to keep your word or pay the consequences. Shylock is a usurer, a person who lends sums of money to others, charging vast amounts of interest. However, Antonio also lends amounts of money, but minus the interest. This is because Antonio is a Christian and the charge of interest is not permitted.
It is because Shylock takes advantage of his situation that Antonio dislikes Shylock, as well as the highly important fact that he dislikes him “for he is a Jew”. Shylock hates Antonio for the differences in their lifestyles and religions also- “I hate him for he is a Christian. ” The bond to which the two business men have agreed is that if his money is not returned within a designated period of time, with the added interest, Shylock will be entitled to cut exactly one pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. When we first meet Shylock he is discussing the bond that Bassanio is attempting to receive for Antonio.
His very first words are “three thousand ducats – well”, which would have to be discussed when contemplating a bond. However, the fact that the only words we have heard from Shylock have been about money gives us an impression of the stereotypical greedy and ungenerous Jew because during the sixteenth century, only Jews could lend money in Elizabethan England, Christians could not because of their beliefs. To the modern audience this may not hold any meaning as our society no longer has these religious constraints upon it.
The discussion of the bond continues with Shylock saying the word ‘well’ many times to prolong Bassanio’s agony of having to go to a Jew for the money. Shylock has already decided in his mind that he will take this bond however Shakespeare portrays him as the type of man who enjoys other people’s pain and for this reason Shylock also brings up reasons for why he maybe should not lend the money again to prolong the whole process. Acting in this way would not have been pleasing to any audience at any time. This introduction of Shylock also suggests that he is not to be liked through out the play.
Bassanio is very gracious despite Shylock’s attitude towards the whole situation. This maybe because it is him asking for the money and if he reacts then the Jew may not lend him and Antonio the money they desire. It may also be because he feels that Shylock is not worth arguing with, especially at this time, for he is nothing more than a Jew. Bassanio offers Shylock the chance to dine with him but Shylock insists, “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, and so following. But I will not eat with you, drink with you or pray with you.
This would shock an Elizabethan audience because they would all have been Christian and would not understand why anyone would have a problem with eating with Christians. A modern audience will also realise that this response is not acceptable. However the grounds of this short speech may not be entirely racial, but perhaps personal. Shylock’s speech in act 3 scene 1 is a very famous one. Here Shylock compares Jews to Christians with the intention of showing they are the same. Shakespeare created this speech for the audience to better understand Shylock and to show the equality in the two races.
The audience at the time may have sympathised slightly towards Shylock, despite thinking that he is still the villain, an impression also created by other techniques Shakepseare uses. Shylock states his reasons for hating Antonio, mentioning how he “mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. ” It is obvious that Antonio has been incredibly horrible to Shylock. Not only has he attempted to ruin Shylock’s business but he has also attempted to destroy any social connections Shylock had.
At the beginning of the speech Shylock is referring more to the personal context of this dispute. Stating what Antonio as a human being has done to him. His use of rhetorical questions and powerful tone of voice would have emphasized this speech greatly. It in its self is very powerful and politically correct. “hath not a Jew eyes?… do we not bleed?… do we not laugh?… do we not die? ” suggest that Shylock then takes a very serious manner to the racial war that is on going between Jews and Christians in Venice in general.
In the adaptation of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shylock is shown to almost be in tears at this moment in the play. This is exactly as I had imagined it when I first read these lines and is therefore how I think Shylock would be acting. I believe it was this that Shakespeare wanted; he hoped the Elizabethan audience would begin to question what they believed they knew about other cultures. I think he wanted the Elizabethan audience to begin to think about how different these cultures really were and also how they deserved to be treated.
If this is true it would make “The Merchant of Venice” an anti-racism play rather than a racist play. The court scene towards the end of the play, (Act 4, Scene 1) shows a greater evil inside of Shylock, here he is so intent on removing a pound of Antonio’s flesh that he is unwilling to accept ‘thrice thy bond. ‘ This would place an audience, Elizabethan or modern firmly against the Jew because anyone who would rather cut a man open then have three times the money he is owed is sick and vindictive. Racism is clear from the beginning of this scene.
Shylock is made out to be the villain. The Duke, who is supposedly not meant to take sides, nor be biased towards one cause, or against Jews, has clearly quite prejudiced views and influences the court against Shylock. This is shown by the Duke empathizing with Antonio before the trial begins, “I am sorry for thee, thou art come to answer, a strong adversary, an inhuman wretch,” and then when calling Shylock into court, “call the Jew into court,” not referring to him by his full name. There is much pleading with Shylock, yet not once are Shylock’s actions kind and sympathetic.
He openly admits to hating Antonio, “More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing, I bear Antonio. ” Shylock makes arguments to strengthen his demands, “The pound of flesh which I demand of him, is dearly bought, ’tis mine and I will have it. “If thou deny me, fie upon your law. ” Shylock here is continuously being made to appear the evil character. Shakespeare not only does this through Shylock’s actions but also uses other characters to strengthen the racist image of a Jew. This is particularly shown when Gratiano says, “O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog, and for thy life let justice be accused. ”
The outcome of this court case does not please Shylock. He is sentenced to become a Christian, the worst punishment possible for a committed Jewish man such as himself. The reason the case turned around was because in the bond it was never stated that Shylock was allowed to spill a single drop of blood in cutting the pound of flesh from his nemesis, Antonio. In finding this there was no way Shylock could continue with the bond and therefore received his punishment for not showing mercy to the Christian when he had the chance. Later in the play Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs away with Lorenzo, a Christian.
In Elizabethan times, most if not all of the audience will have been Christian. Therefore this will have made the audience think highly of Jessica as she has turned Christian. This is again feeding the audience’s hatred toward Shylock, as just before Shylock says, “To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces. ” This insults not only all of the Christians in the play but the entire Elizabethan audience too, by saying that they are all fools who never show their feelings by wearing a mask. He later says, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewel in her ear. Shylock completely detests his own daughter because she has become a Christian. It also shows that his property and money has more value to him than his daughter’s life. He has in fact been racist towards Christians all of this time, while Christians have been racist towards Jews, and has utter shame that his daughter has become something he hates. This racism from Shylock will just increase the audience’s already low opinion of him. They will not only hate him because he is a Jew, but also because he hates his own daughter.
Shylock is portrayed here as the stereotypical greedy Jew, by the end of the quote he seems to be more bothered with the loss of his ducats than by his daughter’s disappearance. He is reported as having cried “My daughter! O my ducats! ” originally but later concentrating on his ducats and cursing his daughter, “Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter, and jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones, stolen by my daughter. “Justice! ” We will never actually know now if the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written to be racist or to purely entertain.
If it was in fact the latter then maybe Shakespeare was intending to only compete with similar plays at the time, such as ‘The Jew of Malta’ mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Had it been for this also, the element of racism may only have been included to attract a greater audience. The second possibility is that Shakespeare wrote the play to be a liberal eye opener for the better educated of his audience. Shylock’s speech is the pivotal moment of the play in this regard. During the Elizabethan times this would have shocked audiences.
It was extremely rare for anyone to be pro-Jewish as it was universally believed they were associated with the Devil. A modern audience would be moved by this but not shocked as they would already realise that the Jewish race was equal to each of their own. During Elizabethan times I don’t think that this play would have been considered greatly controversial, however as times have changed so have, attitudes towards matters such as these. It is for this reason that by today’s standards I believe that ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ is a racist play. However, I think that William Shakespeare did not write it with these intentions in mind.
It is an informative piece that is consistent with the attitudes of society in the sixteenth century and for that reason valid in today’s society. To convince me that the play was racist, Shakespeare would have had to have been blatantly more biased against Jews. The fact that in some cases he criticises the Christian actions and encourages us to feel sympathy for Shylock leads me to believe otherwise, I do not believe Shakespeare was condemning nor promoting racism but merely recognising and acknowledging it, being careful not to sway too far to either side.