Questioning Humanity The Merchant Of Venice In the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Shylock is portrayed as a manipulative, greedy, and money hungry man who, throughout the book, is consumed with the deterioration of his enemies. Because of the prevailing anti- Semitic sentiment in Shakespeare's time, you would naturally assume that the Merchant of Venice is an anti- Semitic play. However, as you continue to examine the text, Shakespeare portrays Shylock in a much more human way than was generally done in those days and he shows that Shylock is, in fact, a part of humanity.
Shakespeare challenges anti-Semitism by showing that Jews are just like Christians. He does this by proving how the imperfections that people have are what make us human. Even today, Shakespeare shows the world how hypocritical people can be, no matter their religion, race, or personal beliefs. Shakespeare uses irony in this play to illustrate that the bad things that Shylock (the Jew) has done are no worse than what Antonio (the Christian) has done in his lifetime.
Therefore, this creates the effect of humanizing the characters and demonstrates that regardless of religion or race, people have both good and bad sides. Although Shylock’s Jewishness is made apparent from the very moment he is introduced, and thus seems to reinforce Shakespeare’s work as being anti-Semitic, it is in fact Shylock’s wit and humanity that reveal how Shakespeare challenges such bias. Before Shylock even enters the play, the scene introduction mentions that he is a Jew and immediately sets your mind against him, especially in Elizabethan England when Jews were alienated.
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Shylock quoted, “[Antonio] hath disgraced me [Shylock] and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I [Shylock] am a Jew. (3:1:52). " While Jews were scorned because of their religious beliefs, Shakespeare made it clear that each religious group hated each other. For example, Shylock says, “I hate him for he is a Christian (1:3:40). ” Therefore, although Shylock is made the “bad guy” in this play, he isn’t the only one guilty of religious discrimination.
Shakespeare makes it clear that both Antonio and Shylock have no religious tolerance for each other and are prejudicial toward each other’s religion. Although William Shakespeare leads you to believe that Shylock is prejudiced toward Christians, the reason for his hatred becomes clear when you learn that he is a man who is abused by the Christians surrounding him. Shylock has a reason for his hatred, “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine. 1:3:121)” Shylock defends his hatred when he says, “ 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? 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 humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! (3:1: 52)” Therefore, it is Shylock’s human nature that leads him to despise Christians, not because of their religious beliefs directly, but because of their hatred of him simply because of his religious beliefs. Shylock defends his humanity by showing the Christians that they are no different from the Jews they treat with such disrespect.
Shylock has a desire for revenge, which further humanizes him and connects him with Antonio. Because of Shakespeare’s choice of words, he leads you to believe that he is an anti-Semitic. However, a closer look at how Shakespeare shapes the play illustrates a deeper theme—that people are people, no matter their religion, race, or beliefs. Shylock doesn’t preform his actions because he is a Jew, he is simply mean because of the way the other characters treat him. Shylock says, “I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, But since I am a dog, beware my fangs. ” Shylock's actions are justified because of the way the other characters treat him. . Christian revenge is typical; therefore, Jewish revenge can’t be faulted. While Shylock is mean because of the cruel treatment he has received throughout his life, Antonio has no excuse. Shylock makes you realize that while Shakespeare may give the appearance that he is an anti-Semitist, he really believes that all people are equal and hatred is universal.
At the end of the day, Shakespeare proves that it is Shylock’s humanity that makes him just like everyone else. He shows that the conflicts in The Merchant of Venice may start out because of religious differences; however, the actual message is more how the desire for revenge is something all people have in common, despite any other differences in their lives. Shylock challenges the stereotypes given to him in the beginning of the book and creates a complex character whose behavior is justified because of the way the other characters treat him.
The Merchant of Venice demonstrates that no writers have to be bound by the prejudices of their time. While Shakespeare probably never met a Jew in his lifetime, he showed that religion doesn’t define who a person is. Some people may argue that because Shakespeare gives Shylock the stereotypical Jewish characteristics, he is obviously anti-Semitic. However, Shakespeare proves through Shylock that his intention wasn’t to emphasize anti- Semitism, but to show that all people have both good and bad sides to them.
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