The Merchant of Venice is a comedic play written by William Shakespeare from 1596-98 that touches on two contemporary themes:
- ethnic and religious discrimination with the character of Shylock
- sex-role stereotypes with the character of Portia
Shylock is a ruthless Jewish money-lender who insists on receiving a previously agreed upon “pound of flesh” from the character Antonio who is forced to default on a loan after his prospects take a turn for the worse.
Some literary critics suggest that Shakespeare paints a dangerous, anti-Semitic picture with Shylock. Others defend Shakespeare, saying he presents not a one-dimensional but, rather, a complex human character who stands up to discrimination by Christians.
I am a Jew: hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew
hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you
tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not
die? (Act 3, Scene I).
Later, Shylock is outwitted by the woman Portia disguised as a male lawyer’s apprentice.
Portia is a wealthy, educated person given to wordplay and citing proverbs. In Elizabethan times this was taken as a sign of intelligence.
After unsuccessfully appealing to Shylock’s humanity, Portia insists he is allowed to remove Antonio’s flesh on the condition that not one drop of blood is carved from Antonio’s body.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; the words expressly are “a pound of flesh”.Take, then, thy bond. But, in the cutting it, if thou does shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate unto Venice (Act 4 Scene I).
Realizing he’s been outsmarted, Shylock admits defeat and dejectedly accepts the verdict. He is forced to convert to Christianity and ultimately loses half of his assets.¹
Elizabethan audiences probably laughed when Shylock was deposed, seeing this as a fit and happy ending. Today, the play seems to appeal to stultifying Elizabethan biases with some progressive thinking sprinkled within.
Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century audience never doubts Shylock’s fate… Audiences in Elizabethan England most likely met Shylock’s demise with something like Gratiano’s cruel and ecstatic glee. In a society that not only craved cultural homogeneity but took drastic measures to attain it, few would have been troubled by the implications of Shylock’s forced conversion. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the majority of whom assumed that eternal damnation was the fate of any non-Christian, would have witnessed Shylock’s conversion as a vital contribution to the play’s happy ending. By turning Shylock into a Christian, the Venetians satisfy themselves with their own kindness in saving the soul of a heathen.²
At an Anglican service, I once heard a minister idealize Shakespeare as a kind of rival to the Bible, which I think represents the attitude of some Shakespeare fans.
Other people find his work hopelessly outdated and don’t want to refer to explanatory notes when being entertained.
Myself, I see him as a brilliant and progressive genius working within the limits of his own time. Had he gone too far against the grain of Elizabethan society, nobody would have watched his plays and he would have had no impact at all.
This is a lesson, I think, we would do well to remember when hoping to effect change in today’s world.
Sometimes little steps go a lot further than giant leaps.
¹ Good summary here: https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/play-summary/merchant-venice/