Throughout the text ‘The Merchant of Venice’ presents a main them of anti Semitic racism both anti Jewish and anti Christian. The play is set in Venice, an ancient civic republic and not a nation ruled by a king or queen. However it reflects London in the late 1500’s. Venice was also a trading centre of great importance. It presents a father daughter relationship where she will not be accepted to love a Christian. This shows strong racism within the community. However racism is ever present in today’s society in many forms. The play centres on the two main characters, Antonio an extremely wealthy merchant and shylock a very wealthy Jew. Here there are negative feelings and attitudes between the two characters. This is mainly to do with the different religions.
During the late 1500’s in Venice racism was a strong and dramatic issue. The Jews were treated as an inferior race. Harsh laws were passed against them. These stopped the Jews from marriage between non-Jews and Jews. Jews were thought to be bad and were sent to special areas called ‘Jewish Ghetto’s’ or were humiliated or maltreated in public. The conditions in the ‘Jewish Ghetto’s’ were horrific. There was also a Jewish ‘synagogue’ within the ‘Ghetto’s’. Curfews were placed and a lack of freedom was given. They could only have a few professions.
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 could be one of the main reasons why Shylock hates Antonio with a vengeance as Antonio is supposedly causing Shylock’s profits to drop. Shylock also hates Antonio for the difference in their life styles and religions, “I hate him for he is a Christian,” suggests strong racism. Shylock made it clear that his relationship with Christians was strictly business, “I will sell with you,” “but will not eat with you, drink with you, nor prayer with you”. This conveys that Shylock was willing to offer a service to Christians to make his profit but was not prepared to socialise with them. We can depict that Shylock was eager to use and abuse the Christians for their religion, a sign of antipathy. This is unacceptable and gives a strong sense that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a racist play.
Throughout the text Bassanio needs 3000 ducats as a suitor to Portia. Antonio his friend cannot lend him this vast amount of money as all his money is tied up in his fleet of sailing ships. Instead he offers himself as a guarantee. Shylock has agreed to give Antonio a sum of money, but did not charge interest he insisted, “let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me”. We could suggest that this could virtually kill Antonio. From this it conveys strong feelings of antagonism and revenge. Also this implies
prejudice, as it could be symbolic of the Christians being worthless. We can suggest this because flesh is usually taken from dead animals. This idea can clearly convey that Shylock is trying to imply that Christians are of no value.
However Shylock begins to convey how Antonio’s treatment has turned his life into a misery. He states that he has, “hindered me half a million” which shows that Shylock has stopped him from making a great profit. I feel that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is based on revenge and is reflective on racism. Shylock feels antipathy towards Antonio as he has stopped him from becoming wealthier. Although we also know that the Jews could not be in possession of their own property but could only rent. Also he claims that he has, “scorned my nation”. This suggests that he has made mockery of the fact that he is a Jew. This shows racism, as Antonio does not appreciate the Jewish culture or traditions.
Shylock had made a bond with Antonio, which Antonio could not break. However Shylock conveys, “the man is not with standing sufficient”. Shylock wanted revenge on Antonio because of the way Antonio had physically and verbally abused Shylock in the past. Shylock says “you call me mis believer” portrays racial criticism. Antonio feels that anyone who is not a Christian is an inferior race. Antonio sees Shylock as, “cut throat dog” which is reflective of thieves as he charges too much interest. It can also be regarded as not a human and again criticised about his business. The phrase, “you spat upon my Jewish gabardine”. This shows definite racial abuse. It clarifies the idea that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a racist play.
It is noticeable that Antonio does not deny abusing Shylock, instead Antonio suggests, “I am as like to call thee so again, to spet on the too”. This depicts that even though Antonio was dependant on the Jew, he still acknowledged the fact of the differences between the two religions. The way Shylock has been treated is unfair and would not be accepted in today’s society. We can learn that Shylock had suffered at the hands of Antonio but it did not appear that it was just Shylock suffering, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. This shows us that not only is Shylock in distress but also all the other Jews. He conveys that they are used to suffering. It is highly likely they suffered due to the Christians. I think that this causes prejudice against all Christians and gives the reader the impression that Christians in Venice treated all Jews this unfairly.
Shylock conveys, “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by a Christian example? Why revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute”. This suggests that Shylock felt he had been wronged therefore he thought
he was entitled to vengeance. We can understand that Shylock had been waiting for the opportunity of getting on top of Antonio. We can see that Shylock now intended to use the bond as a way of getting revenge on Antonio, “I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”. This clearly depicts antipathy. It is obvious that the Jews did not like the Christians, due to the different religious beliefs in both religions.
Throughout the text we learn that the Christians lent money for no interest clearly this affected Shylock’s business, “he lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice”. This intensifies the idea that the Christian community was clearly not pleased. This may have created negative attitudes towards all Jews. We can imply that Shylock wants revenge for what he has personally suffered. I can understand that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ presents racism in different forms. However it reflects the social historical background to the treatment of the Jews. This treatment of racial abuse had caused Shylock to seek revenge on Antonio.
From Act Two we can suggest that Shylock is prejudiced when his daughter Jessica elopes with her Christian lover Lorenzo, who is one of Bassanio’s friends. Also we see racism present in Solanio as he says, “the villain Jew”. This implies that Solanio is openly racist. Shylock’s response is harsh and very prejudicial against the Christians, “would any of the stock Barabbas had been her husband, rather than a Christians”. We can understand that he is so irritated and angry that he compares Lorenzo to a Jewish criminal set free instead of Christ. This portrays an idea that Shylock wishes that Jessica had married any Jew, no matter how bad, rather than a Christian. These feelings are clearly racist. On the other hand underneath, the hatred is much greater. This depicts how deep his prejudice goes against Christians. Shylock conveys, “the dog Jew”. This suggests racial criticism.
However Shylock says, “oh my ducats!” this clarifies that Shylock appears to be more worried about his money. He uses very strong language; Shylock wishes that Jessica “were dead at my foot”. This wish for his daughters death revokes much of the sympathy created by a former plea for the recognition of his humanity. Shakespeare creates an image of a murderous Jew, who in this instant is willing to kill his only daughter for the sake of a few ducats. He is furious and as a result of this theft, he greets the rumour that one of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked with savage delight. He says, “to bait fish withal, if it will feed nothing else”. This is openly racist as it gives us a clearer insight to racism ‘In The Merchant of Venice”. However I feel that Shylock is ‘two faced’ in a sense that he calls for equality, “hath not a Jews hands”, “fed with the same food” but then he asks for revenge. This is apparent in the line, “and if you wrong us, shall
we not revenge”. This could also depict that his change in attitude shows non-racism at this point in within the play.
We can suggest that Belmont appears to be a very racist community as Morocco’s first words when he meets Portia to face the casket’s test are, “mislike me not for my complexion”. This could imply that Morocco feels very strongly about this issue as he thinks that Portia would racially criticise him for his colour. This conveys and suggests a sign of racism.
The play confirms, “my ships have all miscarried, my bond to the Jew is forfeit”. Antonio has to face up to the agreement. However when Shylock learned about the state of Antonio’s ships, which had not returned he happily declared, “I’m very glad of it, I’ll plague him. I’ll torture him”. This conveys Shylock’s happiness towards Antonio’s loss. This portrays an image of racism, as Shylock knows Antonio’s suffering. I feel that Shylock’s sufferance from Antonio has made him feel powerfully racially abused. He is now proud to see his enemy feel humiliated. Shylock was not going to let his opportunity of revenge on Antonio slip he conveys, “cursed be my tribe if I forgive him”. This portrays that there was no way that Shylock would exonerate Antonio for his ill-mannered treatment towards him, “I sworn to have the due forfeit of my bond”. He is almost desperate to be in control. This could suggest another sign of racism as Shylock is trying to imply to the Christians that the Jews can also gain power, but most importantly, have the same equal power!
However the three months are over and Antonio is held in prison. He owes money and cannot repay and therefore is thought to be like theft. Shylocks response could be seen to be forceful as, “I’ll have my bond”. The use of repetition emphasises the hatred and antipathy towards Antonio. The phrase is a short and emphatic statement. Antonio is in danger, but appears to be calm, “let him alone”. However we know that the Duke cannot appear to be racist. He has to be impartial and cannot over rule the bond. This is due to the fact that business can come to an end and Venice cannot afford to loose trade. From the line, “that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum”. This shows Shylock’s eagerness of revenge on Antonio, who Shylock knew had been wronged by. Antonio knew that there was no way that Shylock would turn away from the bond. This is evident within the line, “make no more offers”. This passage clearly conveys that the Jew was hard hearted towards the Christians. Shylock would only have his bond, now that he had the chance of revenge, which he had patiently been waiting for.
However looking at the court scene the phrase, “Go, one, call the Jew into the court”, could be seen to be racist. This could be suggested as it clearly
divides and separates the religions. This denotes that many people did not give Jews respect. In many cases Shylock was not referred to as Shylock instead, “dog Jew”, “currish Jew”. Gratiano conveys Shylock as, “o, be thou damned, inexecrable dog”. Overall it shows the Duke to be prejudiced against Jews. The Duke says, “from stubborn Turks, and Tartars never trained”. This depicts that if Shylock takes his bond he will be cruel and harsh like the, “Turks and Tartars”. They were non-Christian people and therefore the Duke suggests, not people who value qualities like mercy and forgiveness. It is noticeable that the Duke does not actually accuse Shylock of being like them but implies what he would be if he were to go ahead with the bond.
From analysing the scene further, we get a clearer understanding of revenge and racism within the play. Shylock says, “more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio”. This conveys that Shylock’s antipathy towards Antonio is immovable. This also conveys string emotions of revenge as he has suffered many years of humiliation and is in a position to be less than charitable. Although the hatred is deeper as Shylock clearly showed that the money Bassanio’s turned up with was worthless compared to the bond. This becomes apparent in the line, “if every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat. I would not draw them. I would have my bond!” This clearly indicates Shylock only wants the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock says, “the pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ‘t is mine and I will have it”. Shylock was clearly saying that he owns the pound of flesh and it is his property therefore he shall have it. I feel that this is not racist, as he wants vengeance and it could be seen as a more personal grudge.
Although the Dukes behaviour was rather surprising considering the fact that he was supposed to be impartial but he was clearly supporting Antonio, “I am sorry for thee, thou art come to answer A stone adversary, an inhuman wretch, uncapable of mercy”. The Duke’s actions are unfair therefore it was impossible for the Duke to give a fair hearing. However Portia comes in and poses as male, Balthazar a lawyer in disguise to try and save Antonio’s life. Balthazar’s opening speech begins with, “the quality of mercy is not strained”. This conveys that he is trying to explain that mercy cannot be forced, you can’t compel someone to show mercy if they are not merciful. This statement is obviously aimed at Shylock as he claims, “On what compulsion must I?” This suggests the fact that he is going to show no sympathy what so ever. This is an extremely powerful speech and is full of references to Christianity and God, “it is an attribute to God himself”. Balthazar in effect, personifies mercy as being like the qualities of a king. In the Elizabethan times, it was believed that God chose all kings. I feel
that Balthazar is not racist here, as he does not talk bout God to be of a specific religion. He highlights the fact that there is only one God.
Although Shylock’s response to this is, “I stay here on my bond”. This conveys strong enthusiasm and confidence I feel that this could be racist as Shylock’s eagerness to kill a Christian in cold blood. This becomes apparent in the line, “O noble judge”. We also find out that Shylock rejects a surgeon to be present, “it is nominated in the bond”. I feel that this could be seen to be racist as he wants to take the life of this Christian due to the fact that of their religious beliefs and teachings. However on the other hand it’s due to his personal hatred.
Balthazar creates an impression that he is agreeing with Shylock and his merciless bond, “you must prepare your bosom for his knife”. Shylock becomes ecstatic that Balthazar is on his side. He admires his judgement, “O excellent young man”. In the bond not one drop of Christian blood may be spilt, “shed thou no blood, nor all thou less nor more”. Of course this would be an impossible task to perform and it is here that the dramatic turning point of the play occurs. A constant reference to the weight of the flesh provokes images of scales and measuring units, this reflects a theme of justice and how it is unfairly balanced between the two religions.
Balthazar not only frees Antonio at this point but also convicts Shylock of attempted murder. We know that the Duke shows racism at this point as he conveys, “it is enacted in the laws of Venice if it be proved against an alien shall seize one half his goals”. We can suggest that the language used, “alien” depicts a strong sense of racism as it conveys an idea that Shylock’s religion and beliefs are an outcast! Also the Duke mention of the, “laws in Venice”, suggest that even the law could be seen to be racist for the use of the word, “alien”. Shylock cannot go through with the bond and is forced to give up his fortune and to convert from Jewry to Christianity. This is evident in the line, ” he presently become a Christian”. I feel that this could be racist as Antonio may feel that the Jewish culture should be exterminated, although it gives a strong sense that its mostly to do with revenge.
For Shylock this is the worst possible thing he could be made to do, as he is proud to be a Jew. However we notice that earlier on in the court scene, Shylock exposed the hypocrisy of the Christian religion by questioning the business of Christians having slaves. Now we see that this has reappeared in the fact that the Duke and Antonio are forcing Shylock to become a Christian. Towards the end we are clearly told that Portia and Bassanio accept Jessica and Lorenzo. This conveys the fact that Jews and Christians are able to communicate but also get married.
In conclusion I have enjoyed reading and analysing ‘The Merchant of Venice’. I feel that the text shows many elements of anti-Semitism, which has led me to think that overall ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a racist play in many forms, from weighing up all the different evidence. It has led me to think more deeply about how the changes in modern society have affected our belief in God and the ways in which we discriminate against those who are different to us. The play shows discrimination of the Jews with Shylock the social outcast who is driven out of society. We can convey that racism is still place in today’s society. I feel that there is more racism throughout the play and due to the fact that there is hatred and antagonism between two different religions racism is reflective upon that.