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Analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

The Merchant of Venice is a tragi-comedy probably written between 1596 and 1598.  It is one of the ‘problem plays’, as it’s difficult to classify this play in either the tragedy or comedy category.  A controversial play, it deals with religious intolerance towards the Jewish faith, and thus, by extension, with antisemitism.  It is an open question whether the play openly promotes bigotry against Jews, or merely comments on such bigotry.  Both positions will be discussed below.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” –Antonio, Act I, scene ii, line 93

2. “I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,/For I am much asham’d of my exchange;/But love is blind, and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit,/For, if they could, Cupid himself would blush/To see me thus transformed to a boy.” –Jessica, Act II, scene vi, lines 34-39

3. “All that glisters is not gold.” –Prince of Morocco, Act II, scene vii, line 65

4. “To bait fish withal.  If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.  He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.  And what’s his reason?  I am a Jew.  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.  The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” –Shylock, Act III, scene i, lines 45-62

5. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,/The attribute to awe and majesty,/Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;/But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,/It is an attribute to God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, Jew,/Though justice be thy plea, consider this–/That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.  I have spoke thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea,/Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice/Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene 1, lines 179-200

6. “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’./Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;/But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed/One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate/Unto the state of Venice.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene i, lines 301-307

7. “How far that little candle throws his beams!/So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” –Portia, Act V, scene i, lines 90-91

One important theme in The Merchant of Venice is outer appearance versus inner reality.  This is best and most easily seen in the matter of the three caskets.  The gold and silver caskets may be pleasing to the eye, but what’s inside them is utter ruin for the suitors who are superficial enough to choose them.  Bassanio, however, can see past the dull-looking lead casket, whose message threatens rather than promises; accordingly, he finds Portia’s picture in it, and may marry her.

Another example of this theme is how Lorenzo, in his love for Jessica, can see past her Jewish upbringing, so hateful to Christian bigots, to see the lovely girl she is inside.  Similarly, when she’s disguised as a boy during her eloping with Lorenzo, she feels foolish, “But love is blind,…” (See Quote 2)

Furthermore, in Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (see Quote 4), he shows us how, underneath the surface differences between Christian and Jew, members of both traditions are equally human, reacting the same way to stimuli of pleasure or pain, with the Christian just as capable of vindictiveness as the Jew.

Indeed, the ‘mercy’ shown Shylock by the Christians is hardly mercy at all: he’s allowed to live, but he’s financially and spiritually ruined, giving up his money and property to the state and to Antonio, with Antonio’s half reserved for Shylock’s hated Christian son-in-law and disloyal daughter after Shylock dies.  To top his humiliation off, he’s forced to convert to Christianity.  Gratiano cruelly gloats as Shylock leaves the courtroom in near despair.

During that same courtroom scene, the Duke of Venice is advised to see beyond the physical youth of ‘Balthazar’ and see the age of ‘his’ wisdom.  Of course, neither he nor the husbands of Portia and Nerissa can see beyond the ladies’ disguises to realize who the ‘lawyer’ and ‘his clerk’ really are.

Materialism is a constant preoccupation in this play.  Bassanio spends money as fast as he borrows it, and needs it of Antonio to marry the wealthy Portia (Is this the real reason he loves her?).  Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, waits for his ships to return from such distant places as Mexico to get his money, and he’s delighted that they’ve safely returned at the play’s end.

Usurer Shylock hates Antonio not only because he’s a Christian bigot against Jews, but because he lends money without interest, hurting Shylock’s business by lessening his profits.  Worse, his daughter Jessica steals from him when she elopes with Lorenzo.

The princes of Morocco and Aragon show their materialism when they choose the gold and silver caskets, only then to lose all hope of having Portia on not choosing the right casket.  The Moroccan prince thus bitterly learns, “All that glisters [i.e., glistens, glitters] is not gold.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Shylock is one of the least materialistic characters in the play, going against the Jewish stereotype at a time when one would assume playwrights were free to exploit prejudicial attitudes without fear of politically correct censure.  Shylock is angry with Antonio for lending out money gratis because this generosity hurts his very livelihood, not merely his ability to get rich.  (We must remember how pre-Enlightenment Jews in Europe were hardly allowed any livelihood other than that of usurer, a hated occupation.)

Jessica’s marriage to Christian Lorenzo upsets Shylock more than her stealing of his ducats; and a turquoise ring of his wife’s, also stolen by Jessica, has more sentimental than monetary value for Shylock.

Indeed, when offered, in the courtroom, twice the amount Antonio owes him, Shylock doesn’t accept it, preferring revenge to money.  The useless, valueless pound of flesh he wants is a possession wanted from malice, not materialism.  This malice is something he returns to the Christians for persecuting him with the same spite.

This brings us to the next theme: religious bigotry.  Shylock’s dislike of Christians is as apparent as their intolerance of Jews, which is not to say that Christians have actually suffered as much from Jewish bigotry as vice versa, but just that Shakespeare has thoroughly explored this theme from both points of view.

Before the story has begun, Antonio spat on Shylock; when he confronts Antonio with this abusiveness, Antonio proudly says he’d do it again.  When Shylock says he’ll take a pound of Antonio’s flesh instead of interest if he defaults on the loan, Antonio–assuming confidently that he’ll easily pay Shylock back in time–calls him a “gentle Jew”, then imagines “This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.”  Apparently, Jews can’t be kind–only Christians can.

Jessica can tolerate neither her own Jewishness, nor her father’s; thus, she eagerly wishes to leave him, marry Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity.  Often in the play, Christians use the word Jew as if it were synonymous with devil.  In fact, the explicit comparison of Shylock, or Jews in general, to devils is frequently made (see Quote 1 above, referring to Shylock’s ‘devilish’ interpretation of the Genesis story of Jacob’s dealing with Laban over sheep).

Two more examples of such antisemitism come from the mouth of Solanio in Act III, scene i: “Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.” (lines 18-19); then, shortly after Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, when Shylock’s friend Tubal (another Jew) appears, Solanio says, “Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be match’d, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” (lines 66-67)

Because Shylock has suffered so much from Christian hate, he understandably returns their bigotry to them.  He says, of Antonio and Bassanio, “I am not bid for love; they flatter me;/But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon/The prodigal Christian.” (Act II, scene v, lines 13-15)

Later in the same scene, he says to Jessica, “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum,/And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,/Clamber not you up to the casements then,/Nor thrust your head into the public street/To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces;/But stop my house’s ears–I mean my casements;/Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter/My sober house.  By Jacob’s staff, I swear/I have no mind of feasting forth to-night:/But I will go.” (lines 28-37)

In the courtroom scene, when Bassanio and Gratiano show the limits of their love for their wives, in their willingness to sacrifice them to save Antonio, Shylock bitterly notes, “These be the Christian husbands!  I have a daughter–/Would any of the stock of Barrabas/Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!” (Act IV, scene i, lines 290-292)

Another theme in The Merchant of Venice is the breaking and keeping of oaths.  Portia has sworn an oath to obey her late father’s wish to abide by the conditions he’s stipulated in her suitors’ choosing of the three caskets.  If a suitor chooses silver or gold, she cannot marry him even if she wishes to.  If a man chooses lead, she must marry him, even if she doesn’t love him.  She keeps her oath, and is lucky to get Bassanio for a husband.

Similarly, the suitors swear an oath: if they choose of the wrong caskets, they are forbidden to marry Portia or any other woman, and mustn’t reveal what’s in the casket they’ve chosen.

The document giving Shylock legal permission to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, if he defaults, is essentially a legal oath.  Shylock says, “An oath, an oath!  I have an oath in heaven./Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?/No, not for Venice.” (Act IV, scene i, lines 223-225)  Thus, Antonio is legally bound to give Shylock that pound of flesh.

When Bassanio and Gratiano marry Portia and Nerissa, the women give the men rings, making them swear never to give the gifts away to anyone, under any circumstances.  After Antonio’s trial, Bassanio and Gratiano feel indebted to ‘the lawyer Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise) and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise); the disguised women morally bind the men to give them the rings as proof of their gratitude.  This breaking of the original oath gives the women an excuse to be cross with the men–their revenge for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s willingness to give their wives up to save Antonio.

With the breaking of oaths comes the choice to show mercy, or strictly and stone-heartedly adhere to law.  Here we come to certain stereotypical assumptions made about the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Christian traditionalists tend to assume, as do the Christians in The Merchant of Venice, that the Mosaic law is stern, rigid, and unforgiving to those who transgress it.  Actually, Pharisaic law shows much leniency and mercy to those who study thoroughly all its nuances; but the average Elizabethan Christian would only have known the Jewish law as it’s more bluntly given in the Torah.  Hence the misunderstanding.

In light of this, we can see how Shylock is portrayed as an unbending advocate of the law, while Antonio and all the Christians urge forgiveness of the default on the loan.  Shylock asks ‘Balthazar’, “On what compulsion must I?  Tell me that.” (Act IV, scene i, line 178)  Then the ‘lawyer’ answers with the famous speech on the “quality of mercy”, assumed to be an exclusively Christian virtue, given through the blood of Christ on the Cross.

When Shylock has sharpened his knife and is ready to cut out his pound of flesh from Antonio’s vital organs, however, ‘Bathazar’ uses the rigidity of legal wording to stop the Jew.  Shylock is not permitted one drop of blood, for this is never given in the legal document he and Antonio have signed.  Nor does the document allow Shylock any more, or any less, than an exact pound of flesh.

Now that Shylock is finally cornered, the Christians use more of the Venetian law against him; for the punishment for a foreigner’s seeking of a Venetian man’s life is to forfeit the victimizer’s property, giving half to the victim, and half to the state.  The victimizer’s life is now at the mercy of the Duke of Venice.

The Duke, in an act of seeming generosity, grants Shylock mercy before it is even begged for; but what mercy is it to be allowed to live when one has had everything taken away?  Knowing this, Shylock himself would prefer death.

Christian ‘mercy’ is extended by allowing Shylock to keep the state’s half, and when Shylock dies, Antonio’s half would be given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  This of course humiliates the father of an already disloyal, thieving daughter.  The most humiliating condition of this ‘mercy’, however, is Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, all to the gleeful Schadenfreude of his enemies in the courtroom.

Knowing all that we do about this Christian ‘mercy’ versus the ‘Jewish’ nature of Shylock’s cruelty, we must now address a difficult question: is the play antisemitic, or is it merely an exploration of anti-Jewish hate?  The answer perhaps depends on the attitude of the viewers of the play, as well as its producers.

In productions up to the early 19th century, Shylock was portrayed as a grotesque, even comical villain, the actor wearing a red wig and a hook nose.  One can easily visualize the Christian audience booing him whenever he entered the stage.  These obviously would have been antisemitic productions.

Sympathetic portrayals of Shylock, however, began with Edmund Kean in the early 19th century, and most famous portrayals of Shylock since then were sympathetic.  (Some of the major exceptions to this sensitivity, of course, were the productions staged in Nazi Germany.)

Next, we must examine audience opinions of the play.  Conservative Christians would have little sympathy for Shylock and all the bigotry he’s endured; they would regard his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech as him justifying his blood-lust.  They would also disregard his humiliation and losses and the end of the play as a just punishment for his violent attempt on Antonio’s life, and his forced conversion to Christianity would be seen as a joyous occasion, the winning of a Jew’s soul to Christ.

This conservative audience would also consider every antisemitic slur against Shylock as a statement of simple fact, whereas a sympathetic audience would consider the source of the bigoted remarks.  Sympathizers with Shylock will regard the slurs as a defect of their speakers, not as an attitude Shakespeare was necessarily trying to promote.

Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech would thus be understood as a legitimate expression of his grievances against his Christian persecutors; and while his thirst for revenge is assuredly going too far, it is seen as the understandable act of a man tragically pushed over the edge, not just an example of his ‘wicked Jewishness’.

In today’s more tolerant world, that the sympathetic interpretation is preferred to the antisemitic one is so obvious as not to need elaboration; there is, however, an artistic as well as humane reason for preferring the former.

The antisemitic reading results in one-dimensional characterizations that are not borne out in Shakespeare’s text–Christians thus would be stupidly good and the Jews dully evil.  The clean-cut happy ending of such an interpretation, with Jews converted to Christ, is also blandly simplistic.

The sympathetic reading, on the other hand, allows for a more complex, nuanced characterization that is evident in the text, with a subtler mix of good and evil in both Jew and Christian; this also accords with Shakespeare’s usual colourful development of his characters. Furthermore, the resulting tragicomic ending, where Antonio is saved, but Shylock is pitifully ruined, agrees with our more morally ambiguous sense of reality, and is thus more artistically satisfying.

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About Mawr Gorshin

I write and self-publish mostly erotic horror (find me on Amazon and Literotica), but I blog about a variety of topics, including literary and film analyses, anarchism, socialism, libertarian Marxism, and psychoanalysis.

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