In this essay the theme of prejudice will be carefully analysed, by focusing on Act 4 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, or as it is also known as the court scene. Though this play is a ‘Romantic Comedy’ it also highlights the darker sides of human nature: greed, prejudice, hatred and deception. Prejudice was typical of Elizabethan culture, especially anti-Semitism, the hatred of Jews. This is well shown in the play as the stereotypical twisted and evil bad guy is in fact a Jew himself!
In the court the judge, the god like figure is the Duke of Venice. Though he has a lot of power and respect he is as biased as anyone else towards Antonio, the accused in this case:
“I am sorry for thee: thou art come to answer
A stony adversary,”
Not only is he biased towards Antonio as he sees Shylock as “stony” and cold like a rock, or perhaps he sees his heart as “stony”, unable of feel pity or remorse. Furthermore he feels pity for Antonio and that pity would definitely lean the case in favour of Antonio in the Duke’s point of view.
Shylock chooses to take Antonio’s life rather than have three thousand ducats, which would not only make him a merciless wretch but also put him against the stereotypical Jewish money loving man. Shakespeare’s design of this character shows the prejudices of Elizabethan society:
“…Carrion-flesh than receive
Three thousand Ducats: I’ll not answer that:
But say, it is my humour”
This says not only that she would rather take the carrion or useless flesh than the money but also that this dire order is his “humour”! In other words, Shakespeare is saying that Shylock would find Antonio’s pain and suffering amusing or even funny! It is also ambiguous as your humour is just part of your personality and cannot be changed, just like Shylock’s decision to take the flesh instead of the money.
Furthermore, Shylock is fully aware of the prejudices of Venetian society as he highlights these in his “What judgement shall I dread?” speech:
“Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?”
In this speech he talks about the slaves. Slaves and servants were the lowest, poorest class you could be. The people from higher classes in society did not mix and definitely did not marry people lower than them no matter what kind of a person they were, but the bigger picture is that the whole idea of class, and rich and poor people is one of the worst prejudices in the societies of the world. Also this may be ambiguous, as Shylock could be suggesting that they bought the slaves the same as he “bought” Antonio’s flesh and they would not give up their slaves, so why should Shylock give up his flesh?
At another moment in the play Antonio’s speeches show bravery but also prejudice when he cannot see any goodness in Shylock’s blackened heart and has given up all hope for his life:
“You may as well go stand upon the beach,
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;”
This is comparing Shylock to the tides of the sea, and that telling Shylock to be merciful or not to take the flesh is as pointless as telling the tides not to ebb and flow. This is prejudice, as he is assuming that Shylock has no pity or remorse left in his heart and no matter what they say, no matter how much they cry their hearts out he will never change. They could never stop his spiteful resolution.
Also Antonio emits a line that reflects the previous point as well as highlighting his heroism and his friendship with Bassanio:
“You cannot better be employ’d, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.”
This says, as he has done, that Shylock will not be moved and Bassanio might as well begin planning his funeral and writing his “epitaph”, his gravestone message. This also highlights great selflessness as he tries to comfort Bassanio in the face of losing his dear friend. By saying that he could not be better off, because he would be still alive even though he would have to be feeling great pain in Antonio’s passing. This is also ambiguous as it suggests that Antonio is now realizing the true value of life itself and how important it really is, and perhaps that it is the most precious thing that he has, is a life to live.
Antonio is now left with little chance of survival. The Duke calls for a learned doctor or a lawyer, to help revive Antonio’s life from the ashes of Shylocks darkened heart. He brings in young Balthasar, who is really Bassanio’s wife, Portia. This highlights another of the Venetian prejudices: the prejudices against women:
“A Daniel come to judgement! Yea, a Daniel!
O will young judge, how I do honour thee!”
In these lines he describes her as “a Daniel”, a name that means young judge. This is prejudiced as the name Daniel, being a boy’s name, perhaps suggests that only a man could be made an eligible judge. This is ironic as the most powerful person in Britain at the time was Queen Elizabeth I, yet the prejudice still existed. Also Shylock honours Portia for being a good judge when she is disguised as a man. Would she get the same respect if she were dressed as a woman?
One of the greatest examples of anti-Semitism in Elizabethan society was the case of a Portuguese Jew, Dr Roderigo Lopez, who had converted to Christianity and was a fashionable society doctor in London. This description relates to Shylock as a wealthy successful man, but Lopez had given up his religion whereas Shylock had not. Despite this they both suffered the same unfair prejudices. In 1593 Lopez was convicted of treason as he plotted to poison Queen Elizabeth ? herself. Though this was doubted then and still is now, there was a lot of public prejudice against him. They saw him as a Jew and a foreigner, and they made him pay dearly as he was sentenced to death and was hung, drawn and quartered. Some believe it was because he was working as a double agent for England and Spain. This is quite ironic as Shylock and Lopez may have been subject to harsh prejudice but they both committed clear acts of evil and wrongdoing and should have been punished regardless of their religion or nationality.
As Shylock has not backed down Portia tries desperately to persuade him otherwise. In her speech she speaks as if she was reading the words of a Christian sermon:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”
These very biblical lines suggest again that Christianity is a much more righteous religion than Judaism. It almost makes it like a war, the struggle between two soldiers and their gods, but quite ironically Jews, as do Christians, also believe in God they just have different ways of worship. So in fact they are not fighting with their god along beside them but they are fighting for who side he would be on if any. Also the fact that Shakespeare has shown that God is on Portia’s side and not the Jew’s, that then creates more hatred towards Shylock for going against their God even though he hasn’t really done anything wrong.
As Antonio prepares to die, Bassanio confronts him with his deepest feelings towards Antonio and this also highlights prejudices against women and how men are seen as more important, as he is thinking of Antonio instead of his new wife:
“But life itself, my wife, and all the world
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life:”
Here Bassanio says that anything and everything is below Antonio’s life and that he would give his wife, who ironically got them into this situation in the first place, then have Shylock take his bond and Antonio to die. This emphasizes the position of women in Elizabethan society, as Bassanio says that his wife’s life is below the one of his friend.
Though prejudice is being slung at Shylock from all directions he still manages to highlight his own views of Christians:
“I have a daughter;
Would any of the stock of Barrabas
Had been her husband rather than a Christian!”
Earlier in the play Shylock’s daughter ran off to marry one of Antonio’s Christian friends, Lorenzo. Shylock is mad about this as he says in this comment. He would rather she marry someone like Barrabas, (an evil, murdering thief from the New Testament, who was chosen by the people of Jerusalem to be freed instead of Jesus at the Passover Festival), instead of Lorenzo purely because he is a Christian. Though this would shock the audience, was it not the other Christians in the court who were doing the same to Shylock? Therefore Shakespeare is saying that the Jews don’t change, they would still choose a person like Barrabas, regardless of what they are like, than a Christian like Jesus. Ambiguously the mention of Barrabas, a Jew himself, highlights the fact that they think that all Jew are spiteful and horrible.
Portia turns the tables on Shylock’s, what seem to be unbreakable plan, by saying that he can only have flesh not blood:
“But in cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy land and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, Confiscate”
If Shylock spills a single drop of Antonio’s blood he will therefore be breaking the law and will receive the punishment for this crime. Portia’s line: “One drop of Christian blood” is prejudiced against Shylock as she suggests that if he was to cut a Jewish person in the same way, Shylock would spill only Jewish blood and that would not be as bad as to spill a drop of Christian blood. Therefore this suggests that a Jew’s life is worthless compared to a Christian life.
Consequently Shylock cannot kill Antonio and has been beaten. Although Shylock does not go home empty handed, his life is then put in the mercy of Antonio for intending to take a life, but the Duke and Antonio are both lenient towards Shylock as Antonio says:
“, That for this favour,
He presently becomes a Christian;”
The fact that the Christians are put across as much more forgiving and merciful than Shylock, emphases the stereotypical views of Christians and Jews which is prejudicial in itself. Also that they are giving Shylock mercy when he could not give it to them, lowers Shylock’s character even more. Most of all the fact that he is made to relinquish his religious beliefs, probably the most important aspect of his life, highlights that he loves life more than his god. Also for him to then convert to Christianity, gives the suggestion that he is being reformed and that changing his religion will change his horrible characteristics.
Overall I believe Shakespeare dramatises the prejudices in the play well. He makes this obvious enough to be spotted and perhaps enabling him to portray his views to the ignorant spectators. However he does this in such a way as not to make his comments too overt as to offend and insult his extremely prejudicial 17th Century audience.