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Many texts are classed as racist purely because they contain some element of racism, whether or not this is intended to be taken literally. Specifically, The Merchant of Venice is often viewed as anti-Semitic, and thus regarded in a worse light than other, less contentious, Shakespeare plays. However, it is questionable as to the extent to which the play can be considered entirely anti-semitic, or whether it is merely a social commentary, still relevant today.
The primary criticism regarding Anti-Semitism within The Merchant of Venice is the presentation of Shylock. His portrayal as the stereotypical Elizabethan Jew has caused much controversy, gaining further poignancy after the play’s use as Nazi propaganda. However, the bardolatry evident in modern society has limited our ability to see the play as racist, preferring to blame the anti-semitic stance on alternative influences, and flawed interpretation. However, there are certain instances within The Merchant of Venice that are surely anti-semitic, such as Lancelot’s statement ‘the Jew my master… is a kind of devil’  . There is no effort to disguise the hatred for Shylock, despite the fact that being Lancelot’s master, he should rightly command some degree of respect, yet he is ridiculed for his inability to control, perhaps the reason why he asks for such a barbarous forfeit.
Consequently, Shylock is viewed as comical; an almost pantomimic villain. Yet there are few more disquieting speeches in Shakespeare than Shylock’s to Solanio and Salerio (III.i.49-68). For whilst his initial statements are eloquent and justifiable: ‘I am a Jew. Hath a Jew not eyes?’, forcing sympathy from the audience, his words hide a darker sentiment. He must remind the Venetians that he too has ‘hands’, ‘organs’, ‘dimensions’ and ‘senses’  , and thus feels the same emotions and pains that they themselves do, proving himself an theoretical equal. Yet this is not a speech of exaltation for shared experience, nor an exercise to force acknowledgement of his humanity. On the contrary, Shylock’s monologue is anguished, highlighting a deep-rooted desire for vengeance, as seen when he states ‘if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’  . The use of first person adds a sense of imminency, making it more personal, forcing the audience to evaluate their own stance. Furthermore, the use of rhetoric adds to sense of internal conflict, demanding a sympathetic response, yet that he goes on to state ‘the villainy you teach me, I will execute’  , shows a lack of culpability for his revengeful actions, but that he blames his need for violence and revenge on his maltreatment, and thus Christians. Despite the empathy we are forced to feel, the ending reaction to this speech is more one of pity; whilst Shylock’s motivation is understandable, the perpetuation of malevolence and racism is not, turning us against the Jew, and Judaism as a whole.
It could be argued, however, that anti-semitism is perpetuated by the characters within the play, and the audiences’ interpretations, as opposed to the play being anti-semitic as a whole. For example, whilst many characters have reason to despise Shylock, due to his lack of mercy, the fact he is rarely referred to by his actual name, and simply as ‘Jew’, implies that his malevolence is an embodiment of his Judaism. Furthermore, this derogatory referral (with parallels evidently drawn between the alternatively named Jew of Venice and Marlowe’s clearly anti-semitic The Jew of Malta), ‘gains significance as it is repeated; it becomes a term with connotations that infuse it with additional meaning’. As such, it is not necessarily the act of the disparaging use of ‘Jew’ that can be construed as anti-semitic, but the repetition of the insult. This is comparable to the use of the phrase ‘the moor’, in Othello (interestingly, the phrase ‘the moor’  was also used offhandedly in The Merchant of Venice, highlighting the candid fashion in which racism was used in Elizabethan society). Whilst the expression is clearly racist, it is the recurrence of the term, such as at the climax of Othello, when Othello is at his weakest (‘the Moor may unfold me to him’  ), that creates the overall disparaging effect.
It could be argued, however, that rather than an anti-semitic play, The Merchant of Venice could be classed in modern terms as Brechtian, in the sense that societal flaws concerning racism as a whole are highlighted, causing the audience’s reflective detachment from the performance. For example, the Prince of Morocco, an evidently respected individual, states ‘mislike me not for my complexion’  , showing his ability to objectively observe the racism that was commonplace at the time, forcing the other characters into recognition of their discrimination. The use of the personal pronoun, as opposed to Shylock’s earlier use of the collective ‘we’ is interesting, as it highlights the sense of personal victimisation the Prince feels, and is demonstrative of a more personal vendetta. However, it is questionable as to whether this statement is aimed at the other characters, or at the audience, with the racism of the characters embodying the views of the public at the time of writing: ‘Lancelot’s image of the Jew as the devil incarnate conforms to a common medieval notion’  . This questions whether the play was created as a vessel through which society’s failings could be highlighted, or as genuinely anti-semitic, which at the time of writing would have been wholly acceptable, and thus the play’s moral stance would have been less poignant.
That is not to say that because racism, and in particular anti-semitism, was socially acceptable that it was morally correct. On the contrary, Shakespeare frequently refers to equality between religions. For example, when Antonio states ‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose, and evil soul producing holy witness’, he adds weight to the dichotomy of the play, demonstrating how Jews and Christians will both argue that their interpretation of scripture is correct, purely because they naively assume the other point of view is that of the devil. Shakespeare highlights that scripture is in fact subjective, and open to various interpretation, a profound ambiguity that is also true of The Merchant of Venice.
Furthermore, there is equal hatred from both sides, with Shylock proclaiming ‘he hates our sacred nation  ‘, mixing his own personal feelings with anti-semitism, but also ‘I’ll go in hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian  ‘. Here, he accepts a dinner invitation purely to fuel the mutual religious hatred. That there is so much previous animosity between the two parties proves that the invitation cannot be taken as a real gesture, but merely as a cloying flattery, and thus he responds with hatred. This further emphasises the contextual view of race overriding intention and personality, a sentiment perfectly summed when Lancelot leaves ‘a rich Jew’s service to become the follower of so poor a gentleman’. Evidently, Lancelot has chosen religion over wealth, preferring a ‘poor Gentleman’ over ‘Jew’. Interestingly, although Shylock has admittedly treated him badly, Lancelot criticises the religion, rather than the individual. However what is most significant in this assertion is the comparison between the referral to a Christian as a ‘poor gentleman’ versus simply ‘Jew’. This implies the impossibility of direct contrast, denoting an inequality between the two. It could be argued that there is no need to specify a gentleman as Christian as Christianity would have been the norm at the time, perhaps everyone was assumed a Christian, yet either way, to be Jewish is portrayed as abhorrent.
Consequently, Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity is one of the most disturbing scenes in literary history. Although it could be construed as a way for Shylock to access heaven, and thus an act of compassion and acceptance, the fact that it is foreshadowed when Antonio states ‘the Hebrew will turn Christian, he turns kind’  , creates a sense of inevitability, and thus a feeling of resolution when it occurs. That Antonio also states ‘he will turn kind’ is a further insult, the implication being that personality is based upon race and religion, and thus Shylock cannot be considered kind or equal until he relinquishes his faith.
Yet there are flickers of moral justice within the play, particularly visible in the character of Jessica, insinuating that the play is a device to highlight society’s moral injustices. For example, she states ‘I shall end this strife, become a Christian and a loving wife’ showing how she prises love and family above race, and can accept the racist Venetian ideals in order to find love. That Shakespeare also satirises the stereotypes of many nations, creates a link with the audience, and whilst also gaining popularity, adds a sense of clarity and societal significance outside the play’s boundaries.
Ultimately, The Merchant of Venice is a play not centralised around the glorification, or acceptance of anti-semitism, but about highlighting racism as a whole. Whilst, in recent times, Shakespeare has been overly revered, the play is undeniably captivating and thought provoking. Whilst it may not be an anti-semitic play, or even a play wholly about anti-semitism, The Merchant of Venice is an accurate social commentary on human nature, still relevant today.
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