Many have argued that among Shakespeare’s greatest talents as a writer of drama is his ability to pen fictional sequences mimicking historical reality as accurately and insightfully as possible, recreating the social practices and attitudes that circulated during the Early-Modern period in which he lived. Literature works to reinforce but also subvert dominant ideologies, forming a basis on which historical readings can reflect and affect our view of the culture or society in question. Shakespeare’s plays, specifically his work The Merchant of Venice, display particular attitudes which alter, shape, and reform our view of what it meant to be Jewish in the Early-Modern historical period, with Shakespeare’s characters and their treatment of Shylock, combined with his reaction to the social discourses embedded in the plot, demonstrating that while Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock is historically accurate, he is actually satirizing and pointing out the inherent rational flaws of the period’s persecution of Jews. Shakespeare’s careful and deliberate crafting of scenes and situations in the play satirize the logic (or lack of it) concerning embedded, a priori models of otherness in favor of a more socially-constructed model, an attitude centuries ahead of its time. Shakespeare masterfully manages to stay true to the historic discourses of his day while subtly promoting beliefs that directly oppose them.
Shylock is a Jew in a society where all power lies in the hands of Christians; while speaking with a group of Christians denying him the justice he desires, he points out that he must obey “your law,” referring to the doctrines made exclusively by Christians but applying to all peoples. These laws naturally cater to the needs of Christians such as Antonio and Portia, perfectly illustrated by the “noble judge[‘s]” (Portia’s) ruling, which is of course dishonest and really not noble or just at all (Shakespeare 241). In this instance, Shakespeare is pointing out the flaws of Portia and the other Christian characters’ logic. Shylock is never given a chance to be an equal to any of the Christian characters; this is accurate to the prevalent discourses at the time, as exemplified by Sebastian Munster in his The Messiah of the Christians and the Jews, a text composed slightly prior to Shakespeare’s writing, in which Munster says “from the form of your face, I knew you to be a Jew: for you Jews have a particular color of face, different from the form and figure of other men; which thing hath often filled me with admiration, for you are black and uncomely, and not white as other men” (Munster 181). M. Lindsay Kaplan points out how “Munster represents Jews as belonging to a distinct race, which manifests its religious affiliation by the darkness of its complexion” (Kaplan 180). Shylock is, from the moment any character sees him, an inferior man who one would not expect to be treated equally or fairly.
As exemplified by Shylock’s dire situation in the play, Jews are never equated to Christians, or even to white-skinned Caucasians in Early-Modern England. Andrew Willet, in his Concerning the Universal and Final Vocation of the Jews, points out that “if a Scott should carry off his family and migrate into Gaul his posterity would take on Gallic characteristics, inasmuch as it would no longer be accustomed to Scottish ways. Nevertheless a Jew, whether he should go on a journey to Spain or Gaul or whether he should set out into any other region, would declare that he is neither Spanish or Gallic, but Jewish” (Willet 184). In this way, the tyranny Shylock faces is not only based upon his religion, but also upon his race and his ethnic origins as well.
In many cases, what Shakespeare writes on the page is directly opposite of what he’s trying to demonstrate. The Christians treat Shylock unjustly, and Shakespeare takes deliberate measures to make this abundantly clear. But is the portrayal in the play accurate to what realistically would have been likely to occur in Early-Modern England? William Perkins, in his A Faithful and Plain Exposition upon the Two First Verses of the Second Chapter of Zephaniah, a text contemporary with Shakespeare’s time, comments how “there is no man, but if he be asked what he thinks of this nation of the Jews, he will answer, that they are a most vile and wicked people, a froward generation, and that they are worth to taste deeply of all God’s plagues, who so far abused his love and mercy” (Perkins 278). The Christians treat Shylock as if he’s inherently a vile and wicked man, with Antonio outwardly displaying his ill-will toward him, seemingly out of no where, such as having “spit on me [Shylock] on Wednesday last” and “called me a dog,” while “spit[ing] on my Jewish gabardine” (Shakespeare 103). The Duke, a Christian who is supposedly “noble” himself, refers to Shylock as “a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty, from any dram of mercy” (109). Their treatment of Shylock certainly conforms to what Perkins would have considered typical for the time.
Shylock is not incapable of pity; he is not empty from the possibility of mercy, he is not inhuman, and he is not a wretch. Perkins continues, stating how he “noteth three of their great sins, for which they were a nation not worthy to be beloved. Covetousness, cruelty and deceit”, all of which seem to apply to what the Christian characters say about Shylock (Perkins 278). Shakespeare has the Christian characters call Shylock these names to mimic what a Jew would likely have to face in ordinary life, knowing the whole time that Shylock is actually quite opposite of these labels, even if the Christian characters, and even his own audience, cannot see it. Shylock is in an extremely tough position in the play; he’s helpless against the dominating social discourses circulating, unable to state his case for justice in front of people who will not listen to his plea, and who inherently despise him. Shylock asks “I stand for judgment. Answer: shall I have it?” (Shakespeare 105). Remaining historically accurate, he does not get it, left only to say absently, resigned to his fate, “I am content” (188).
Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock is historically accurate; his treatment of Portia, Antonio, the Duke, and all the other Christian characters is satirical, quietly pointing out the obvious flaws in their logic, and through it the flaws in the discourses related to otherness radiating at the time. Portia, disguised as the “most learned judge,” states how “mercy is above this sceptered sway; it is enthronèd in the heart of kings; it is an attribute to God himself” (188). Portia is condemning Shylock for being unmerciful, all the while being far more tyrannical and unmerciful, acting in a far more un-“Christian” way than Shylock ever did. She continues her rant, stating, “that in the course of justice none of us should ever see salvation.” More hypocritical words could not be spoken; she is in the act of robbing a man of all his wealth simply because he’s of “a most vile and wicked people” all the while preaching exactly the points he is embodying. She allows Shylock the false justice of being able to take a portion of Antonio’s flesh, knowing he’d never do it, because if he “dost shed one drop of Christian blood, [his] lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (107). These laws, of course, are Christian laws, and serve to meet Christian ends.
Shylock demonstrates not only his empathy and “mercy,” considered distinctly un-Jewish traits, but also the hypocrisy of the current social system run by Christians in power, when he argues for the plight of the slave, owned by Christians who consider themselves kings of kindness and mercy, stating how “You have among you many a purchased slave, which, like your asses and your dogs and mules you use in abject and slavish parts, because you bought them” (194). He asks the white men to “let them be free,” to which they are sure to reply “the slaves are ours” (198). Shylock cannot win; he can only describe his frantic plea to those too closed-minded to pay him any thought.
Portia and the Duke insist upon converting Shylock to Christianity. M. Lindsay Kaplan comments how “the calling of all the Jews to Christianity was understood to be a necessary precursor to Jesus’s second coming; this concept achieved a certain urgency in a period where millenarian expectations were rising” (Kaplan 246). Converting Shylock is wholly unnecessary at this point in the play; the oppressive power of Christianity has already “won” its fight against the justice of Shylock. Portia demands “two things provided more: that for this favor he presently become a Christian; the other, that he do record a gift…unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.” Lorenzo is a Christian; Portia is once again slapping Shylock in the face, unmercifully forcing him to give his own money to another simply because the man is a Christian and is accepted by society.
Shylock, for his part, acts in many ways very similar to how a Jew was stereotypically supposed to act in Early-Modern times. He’s primarily motivated by money, though by the end of the play he cares more about justice than anything else. He is a far-more complicated character than any other in the play, demonstrating logic and reason time and time again, arguing his rightful case to those who will not pay him any thought, other than to hate him. Shakespeare portrays all the characters in The Merchant of Venice in a historically accurate manner; however, he manages to introduce a subtext which subtly criticizes and attacks the popular social discourses relating to the otherness of Jews that circulated Early-Modern society. The action centering around Shylock begs the question, “Do all men kill the things they do not love?” (66). The answer is no: sometimes they are killed before they have the chance to decide. In many ways, Shakespeare achieves the impossible - making English men and women sympathize with a Jewish character.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Kaplan, M. Lindsay. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. Print.
Kaplan, M. Lindsay. The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. Print.
Munster, Sebastian. The Messiah of the Christians and the Jews. The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Kaplan, M. Lindsay. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. Print.
Perkins, William. A Faithful and Plain Exposition upon the Two First Verses of the Second Chapter of Zephaniah. The Merchant of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Kaplan, M. Lindsay. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2008. Print.
Some interesting further reading on The Merchant of Venice can be found by clicking the following links:
For the full online text of The Merchant of Venice:
If you are studying The Merchant of Venice in high school or college, remember that to fulfill our mission of educating students, our homework help center is standing by 24/7, ready to assist you.
Are you sure you don't want to upload any files?
Fast tutor response requires as much info as possible.