While in college, I wrote my senior honor’s thesis on the subject of “Order and Authority in Shakespearean Comedy.” As a result, I had read The Merchant of Venice many times and analyzed the importance of written law during the Elizabethan period. But, it had been quite a long time since I read the play, hence I decided to read it again.
If you are not familiar with the play, the first thing you should know is that it’s not very funny. Comedy, in the Shakespearean sense, is based upon structure, not humor. Pretty much, if people get married at the end, it’s a comedy; if everyone dies, it’s a tragedy. In this play, no one dies and there is marriage at the end, but don’t expect to laugh while reading this. It’s not at all like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Comedy of Errors.
As I read it this time, I really focused on Shylock and how he is portrayed in the text. There is ambiguity here. On one hand, it appears that Shakespeare was presenting Shylock in a way that would make the audience pity him; on the other hand, he also portrays him as despicable. The result is that if one is prejudiced against Jewish people, Shylock will fit the stereotype and support that person’s antisemitic ideas. Conversely, if one feels that Jews are mistreated, that person will also find support in the text.
First, I will cite an example that supports the negative stereotype. In the following passage, Shylock is depicted as caring more about his money than his daughter.
Why, there, there, there, there! a diamond gone,
cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfort! The curse
never fell upon our nation till now; I never felt it
till now: two thousand ducats in that; and other
precious, precious jewels. I would my daughter
were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!
would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in
Act III: scene i
Contrast that to the way the Christians in the play treat Shylock. First off, they rarely call him by his name, but generally address him as “the Jew” with a derogatory slur attached. There are also examples of abuse that Shylock suffers by the Christians.
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Act I: scene iii
There is one last quote I would like to point out. During the trail where Shylock seeks his pound of flesh, he is urged to show mercy and forgive the bond. Shylock then points out the hypocrisy of the fact that the Venetians in the court are slave owners who do not practice the same forgiveness that they are urging from him.
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
Act IV: scene i
While I have read this play numerous times, I have not seen it performed. This summer, a local Shakespeare troupe — The Montford Park Players — will be putting on the play. I am curious to see how they will interpret this controversial play. I will certainly be in attendance.
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