The Merchant of Venice Was Anti Semetic
Nicholas Bouwer Mr. Koughan Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice Anti-Semitism, which has often been called the longest hatred (a comment on the unbelievably long time jews have been prosecuted as the bane of the earth), has recurred in society for centuries. Since before medieval times, Jews have been accused of treacherous acts which include the murder of Jesus, the Bubonic plague, poisoning wells and controlling all monetary aspects in people’s lives with the act of usury.
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Accusations like these have lasted throughout history because of misunderstanding and the retardation of interpretations of events in history which have led to feelings of fear and hatred. Anti-Semitism, specifically in Elizabethan times, was unbelievably prominent throughout Europe. Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is a classic example of the anti-Semitic beliefs many people carried during the era. The abusiveness of all the characters towards the lead Jewish role of Shylock gives us insight into the opinions people had about the Jew’s role as a money lender and as a part of the population.
As it is very clear that there are deep-rooted anti-Semitic ideas which appear abundantly throughout the play, the dehumanization of the character of Shylock shows that the play is meant to be flatly anti-Semitic. As most of the characters demonstrate great prejudice against Jews throughout the play, the word ‘Jew’ is used by them to give incredibly negative connotations and its repetition is a defining factor in the degradation of the word and the dehumanization of Shylock.
As Derek Cohen in his book Jewish Presences in English Literature explains, “The word Jew is used fifty-eight times in The Merchant of Venice. Varients of the word like Jewess, Jew’s, and Jewish are used fourteen times; Hebrew is used twice. There are, then, seventy-four direct uses of Jew and unambiguously related words in the play. Since it can readily be acknowledged that Shakespeare understood the dramatic and rhetorical power of iteration, it must follow that there is a deliberate reason for the frequency of the use of the word in the play.
And as in all of Shakespeare’s plays, that reason is to surround and inform the term with associations which, as it is used, come more and more easily to mind. ” (27) In essence, Shakespeare uses the word “jew” whenever any of the characters identify Shylock in order to allow the audience to identify him first as a jew and not as a human being with a name. The word, apparently used neutrally in the early moments of the play, gains significance as it is repeated and becomes a term with additional meaning. Therefore, according to Cohen, “The word Jew has strongly negative implications in The Merchant of Venice. (27) It is significant that Shylock is addressed formally as “Shylock” only seventeen times in the play and then when he is addressed as “Jew” fifty-eight times there is always a degrading term behind or in front of the word. It is also significant that Shakespeare uses the metaphor of the Jew as a dog in the play to make him seem worthless and to justify the right of Antonio and his friends to kick and spit on him. For example, when Antonio comes with Bassanio to get the loan from Shylock, Shylock is surprised but also quite cynical about the ordeal for it is revealed then that Antonio has many times disgraced him in public.
Shylock says, “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog/ and spet upon [his] Jewish gaberdine,/ and all for use of that which is mine own. / … you spet on me on Wednesday last,/ you spurned me such a day, another time/ you call me dog; and for these courtesies/ I’ll lend you thus such moneys? ” (I. iii. 108-10, 123-26) Antonio’s repeated beatings of Shylock and his insults toward Shylock as a dog to his face are another example of how Shakespeare dehumanizes ‘the Jew’ in his play in order to keep up with the anti-Semitic theme.
Although identified as an animal or a “thing” throughout most of the play, Jews are also very closely identified as relating to the devil and Shylock specifically so. Because of all of these perceptions of him as this evil monster, he is even eventually abandoned by his own daughter Jessica and his servant Launcelot, whom he doesn’t really care for as a servant, but is kind enough to keep him. When Launcelot is caught in the confines of his mind, debating with himself the pros and cons of leaving Shylock’s service, he gives the association of Jew and devil very clearly. Certainly, my conscience will serve me to run from this jew my master … to be rul’ d by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who (god bless the mark) is a kind of devil; and to run away from the Jew; I should be rul’d y the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation, and my conscience, my conscience is by a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew” (II, ii, 1-30) This embodiment of Shylock as a kind of devil persuades Launcelot to leave him in the belief that anything will be better than staying with a demonic Jew.
Another example of the Jew embodying Satan is Solanio’s dialogue when Shylock and Tubal enter in act three, scene one. Solanio says to Salerio in reaction to Shylock’s entrance, “Let me say Amen betimes, lest the devil cross/ my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew,” (III, i, 19-20) and for Tubal “Here comes another of the tribe; a third can/not be match’s unless the devil himself turn Jew” (III, i, 76-7) Even though these comments don’t seem very funny nowadays, these two incredibly scornful comments are meant as comedy for all the anti-semites in the audience.
Finally, Shylock is depicted as Satanic when Antonio is describing his lust for his flesh and how he his incapable of reason at this point because it is so great. “I pray you think you question with the Jew:/ You may as well go stand upon the beach/ and bid the main flood bate his usual height/ you may as well use question with the wolf/ why he hath made the ewe bleak for the lamb;/ you may as well forbid the mountain pines/ to wag their high tops and to make no noise/ when they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;/ you may as well do anything most hard/ As seek to soften that- than which what’s harder? / his Jewish Heart! ” (IV, i, 70-80) In this dismal and small tangent by Antonio the audience is given a full view of Shylock’s merciless and bloody rage, but the reason for it in the play is not because he’s human or has been pushed around for his entire life, but because he is Jewish and the incarnation of the devil. Elizabeth Fowler, in her literary essay “Shylock’s Virtual Injuries” says, “Shylock … has chosen to vengefully embrace [the] vicious view of Jews and make it his own. Caliban-like, he says, “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (3. . 65-66). ” (17) A large entity of the play as well as a reason why it is considered anti-Semitic is the main theme of social bonds. An example of some of the social bonds displayed in the play are the loyalty that Antonio and Bassanio give to one another, the engagements that Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Solanio get into, and the contract held between Shylock and Antonio. The social bonds in the play are important to the aspect of anti-semitism because in the end Shylock is the only one deprived of all of his.
According to Fowler, “We are invited to see the many contracts of the play as the making of social bonds (perhaps two of the most important words in Merchant of Venice). These rituals (economic contract, service indenture, marriage) obsessively reproduce the scene of social contract. And here, it is always the site of a perlocutionary action of virtual injury, despite the apparently equal footing on which the parties to contract seem to stand and speak. ” (12) In the play, Shylock, because he is a Jew, gets the short of the stick when it comes to the almighty and important social bond.
This is where anti-Semitism in the play nears its peak. Just because of his religion, Shylock is abandoned by his own daughter (who has something greater than a social bond of a connection to him) and Launcelot who is definitely in a social bond with him. To Shylock in the play, the idea of the contract according to Fowler, “seems to promise accession to a fuller enjoyment of civil powers, but it disappoints, maims, and restricts [Shylock] as often as it endows [him] with plenitude.
Shylock’s virtual injury by anti-semitism, wielded by Antonio and the others, exposes social contract as an inequitable act according to the disabilities of its agents, despite the agency, power, and voluntarism that the contracting parties seem to experience in making their bonds. ” (13) Even though Shylock makes social bonds and contracts with others, by no means are they valued or ever met. Because of the anti-Semitic values everyone around him holds, he is not considered a viable part of the social chain and is eventually cut loose from it.
However, because he has been focused on as a devil, a dog, and a dehumanized ‘Jew’ throughout the play the audience is meant not to feel empathy for him, even though modern times calls for it. The most conflicting and abruptly unanti-Semitic part of the play is of course Shylock’s speech in defense of his own humanity. He says, “I am a Jew. Hath not/ a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimen/sion, senses, affection, 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? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? / If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in/ that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humil/ity? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what/ should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why/ revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and/ it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. “(III,i,49-59) With these lines Shylock defends himself as best he can and his case in being human is believable.
Shakespeare in this speech utilizes words like “senses” and “affection” and “passions” to seemingly create empathy for Shylock in his speech. He states nothing that a normal human would not do or want to do. This speech about human dignity stands in contrast to everything that is said before it in the play. Shylock is portrayed as something of human descent. The last few lines of his speech, even though they seem justified with what he says before them, are still most certainly a cry to get vengeance and while Shylock claims that he is flesh and blood, he demands just this from Antonio.
He wants the pound of flesh passionately. These lines continue to be interpreted in a range of ways. According to Cohen Some “Oversensitive Critics” (37) have argued that these lines prove that Shakespeare somehow transcended the anti-Semitism of his time and made a statement to his fellow man that a Jewish person’s humanity must be recognized and respected. Others read the speech as a cynical and sarcastic one, showing once again that Shylock will use his ‘Jewish’ trickery to outwit and cheat his Christian customers.
The pound of flesh that Shylock seeks from Antonio is another extremely grotesque and mortifying aspect of the play. His inhuman, unmerciful cry for vengeance adds to the despicable nature of his character, particularly in contrast to Portia’s words about the quality of mercy. Shylock’s greed and lust for money are paralleled by his cruelty. One can read this scene as a contrast between the vengeful Jew and the merciful Christian, and by as well as a clash between Old Testament and New Testament.
Surprisingly however, the mercy that the elegant christian Portia so peacefully describes is never given to the Jews of the play and Shylock is stripped of everything he owns as well as his religion. His identity is essentially murdered with a live body left behind to try and find what was taken from it. According to Peter Berek the writer of The Jew as a Renaissance man “Shylock’s success as a character continues to shape the ways in which Jews are perceived. But the social energies that Shylock coins, or that are coined into Shylock, have little to do with the situation of Jews in Elizabethan England or in early modern Europe.
Quite independently of Elizabethan ideas, the figure of Shylock shapes stereotypes of Jews and provides ammunition for the racial anti-Semitism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And in retaliation or recompense, a humanized reading – or misreading – of The Merchant of Venice becomes a resource for both Christians and Jews who argue for such modern concepts as religious toleratance and human equality. If we return to the economic metaphor of the circulation of currency: once social energy has minted coin, the coin can be expended for many purposes. (53) Essentially, Shylock was completely and utterly a character cornered and obliterated by anti-Semitism. He was not given a chance to redeem himself in any way. His daughter and servant abandoned him, his money and religion was taken from him, and his life as he knew it didn’t exist anymore. All the while the audience was not intended to feel bad for him. Jews were a figure of myth in Shakespearean England. They were considered evil and dark creatures and Shylock would have been the perfect example of what they had all heard about.