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Monday, August 15, 2011

In your opinion, is ‘The Merchant of Venice’ an anti-Semitic play? In the course of your answer, explain clearly how Shakespeare presents Christians and Jews and comment on what the play suggests about prejudice and religious values.

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In your opinion, is ‘The Merchant of Venice’ an anti-Semitic play?


In the course of your answer, explain clearly how Shakespeare presents Christians and Jews and comment on what the play suggests about prejudice and religious values.


The Merchant of Venice focuses a great deal on religion because it is at the centre of the whole story. Shylock (a Jew) lends money to Antonio (a Christian) and this is from where the whole problem arises and where the story begins. Neither Jew or Christian really want to do business with each other but because of the situation in Venice at the time, Jews tended to be the only money lenders so Antonio did not have a choice if he wanted to help Bassanio he had to borrow money from Shylock. Because of the “ancient grudge” between the Christians and the Jews and the fact that Shylock felt very hard done by by the Christians because of the way they treated him, he decided to use his position as the money lender to get his revenge on Antonio and demand a pound of flesh if he could not pay back the money.


“If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.”


Help with essay on In your opinion, is ‘The Merchant of Venice’ an anti-Semitic play? In the course of your answer, explain clearly how Shakespeare presents Christians and Jews and comment on what the play suggests about prejudice and religious values.




The Jews and Christians have a mutual hate for one another purely based on race and both treat each other with utter contempt and would go out of their way to hurt each other just to prove a point. The Christians spit on the Jews and call them dogs and devils and the Jews lend Christians money but charge them high rates of interest and possibly ask for forfeits not unlike the one Shylock demands from Antonio.


“You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, And all for use of that which is mine own.”


Shakespeare presents the Jews in a very stereotypical way, especially Shylock. He is greedy, mercenary, spiteful and uncaring and has very few likeable qualities. He is completely evil and shows no mercy at all and when his daughter leaves him, he cares more about the money she stole from him than he does about losing her.


But, instead of making the Christians the complete opposite of the Jews, he also gives them some undesirable qualities, some which are not unlike the typical characteristics of the Jews. Portia, Antonio and Bassanio are all quite mercenary, shallow and greedy and are not even merciful at the trial when casting sentence on Shylock, and mercy is what they claim sets them apart from the Jews. The “Christian” qualities, which they all claim to have, are not there. This is what makes me think that Shakespeare did not intend the play to be anti-Semitic. If he did, then the Christians would not be so much like the Jews and they would be more like “typical Christians.” Instead, we see that characters such as Antonio, Portia and Bassanio believe that they act like true Christians but in fact, they act little better than their enemies. Antonio even admits to treating Shylock badly and says that he would be happy to do it again and still calls himself a true Christian.


“I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.”


Shylock then agrees to lend Antonio the money and Antonio replies;


“The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.”


Antonio says this implying that only Christians are kind but the only kind thing that Antonio does in the play is lend Bassanio the money, and one could argue that he even did this for selfish reasons, to buy Bassanio’s love. He has very few, typical Christian traits but still uses the fact that he is a Christian to persecute the Jews. Shylock even has reasonable excuse for wanting revenge on the Christians because Jews believe in an eye for an eye as a policy for revenge, as that is what it says in the bible, and he has been treated very badly by the Christians. This is another reason why I do not believe that Shakespeare intended the Merchant of Venice to be an anti- Semitic play. He has given us too much reason to think badly of the Christians and feel sorry for Shylock and the other Jews. The fact that the Christians force Shylock to convert at the end of the play shows the audience just how evil and unmerciful the Christians can be and we sympathise with Shylock more than with them. Shakespeare would not have left us feeling sympathetic towards Shylock if he had intended the play to be anti-Semitic. The Christians would have been merciful and we would be left thinking that Shylock got away lightly with what he had done but been left in awe at the endless mercy and kindness of the Christians. Instead, we are left thinking that Shylock was a bit hard done by and that the Christians were not very Christian and merciful. This is why I do not believe that Shakespeare intended the play to be anti-Semitic.





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