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Shakespeare's View on Judaism and Christianity Represented in The Merchant of Venice

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Shakespeare's View on Judaism and Christianity Represented in The Merchant of Venice

"The merchant of Venice" is a play written by William Shakespeare
before the duration 1958 and most probably in 1596. The play is set in
the Capital city of Venice in Italy. Two characters dominate the main
issues of this play Shylock and Antonio, at first we are introduced to
the protagonist Shylock. Shylock is a Jew his character is
stereotypically as evil and manipulative. Shakespeare has done this as
throughout history and even within the Elizabethan period Jews were
loathed, feared and branded Christ killers. Which form the barriers
between the Jews and Christians in the play. The second character is
Antonio who is a Christian and is not seen as a victim of
anti-semitism like Shylock but when contrasted he is presented to be
superior. The themes and issues explored in this play by the two
characters interrelate injustice, power and racism. In this essay I
hope to show how Shakespeare's view on Judaism and Christianity is
represented through the characters in the different scenes that I will
be exploring.

In Act 1 Scene 3 introduces Shylock in a street where Bassanio seeks
him to borrow money in Antonio's name to pursue his love. The loan is
for three thousand ducats, three times the amount of the bond. In this
scene we as audience learn where the barriers are very obvious and
Shylocks hatred for Antonio and the Christians.

How like a fawning publican he looks,

I hate him for he is a Christian:

He hates our sacred nation, and he rails

(Act 1, scene 3)

This immediately depicts Shylock is displaying elements of
belligerence in rejection to ever forgive the Christians. We also see
that how Shylocks believes his religion is more important than
Christians, this is expressed clearly through his blunt direct
statement 'I hate him for he is a Christian'. Shylock also presents
his religion as superior to that of the Christian religion by saying
his religion is 'sacred', he induces strong powerful words to
emphasise his beliefs. From the tone of Shylock's speech there is a
strong implication that he believes his religion is scorned and

There is genuine evidence when Shylock makes a great speech that he is
a victim of anti-semitism:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spet upon my Jewish gabardine,

You'd call me dog: and for these courtesies

(Act 1 scene 3)

Shylock makes this to speech to let the audience know he hates Antonio
for having hindered him in business and for having him humiliated in
public by spitting on him and calling him names. Shylock remembers
this vividly, and this is expressed clearly through the shockingly
dramatic account he gives. At this point we are almost inclined to
believe Shakespeare is sympathising on the maltreatment of Jews as he
makes us sympathise with the anger and humiliation Shylock feels.

Shylock evidently despises Antonio and has already thought of revenge
before Antonio speaks.

If I ever catch him once upon the hip

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

(Act 1, scene 3)

He hopes to carry out exact revenge on Antonio for his own humiliation
and the prosecution that the Jews have long suffered at the hand of
the Christians. At this stage of this scene we learn of the agreement
of the bond.

If you repay me not such a day,

Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

(Act 1, scene 3)

Shakespeare uses alliteration 'fair flesh' to emphasise the importance
of Shylock's ideas of the terms of the bond, the seriousness is
highlighted clearly through the sharpness and pace of his speech as
well. Shylocks thorough and carefully laid out speech initiates the
audience to have an almost negative view towards Shylock because of
his inappropriate enthusiasm in this malicious plan. Shakespeare at
this point has conformed Shylock into the stereotypically negative
idea of Jews, perhaps it is his own prejudiced feelings of Jews that
he has done so. Although Antonio does not like borrowing money from
Shylock he will for the loyalty of his close friend Bassanio.
Antonio's character shows that he is a risk taker. This is shown when
he accepts Shylocks high interest rate.

Why fear not man, I will not forfeit it,

This bond expires, I do expect return

Of thrice three times the value of this bond.

(Act 1, scene 3)

Antonio does this to receive the term of the bond in this manner
because he is confident that he will be able to repay the bond.
Meanwhile the audience perceiver the character Antonio as a man very
loyal to his friend and again Shakespeare's prejudiced feelings are
highlighted. Always throughout history Jews have come out worst
between battles with Christians and in this scene this is true, we are
given the overall picture of Antonio as the Christian man being honest
and loyal whilst Shylock the Jew is presented as a hatred filled evil
man as habitually believed in that period. Antonio is also presented
by Shakespeare as a very courageous man:

Come on, in this there can be no dismay

My ships come a month before the day.

(Act 1, scene 3)

Shakespeare has effectively drawn our attention closely when we hear
of Shylocks hatred and his terms of the bond and Antonio's bravery, in
reality this is where our anxiety builds within the play because the
audience is left very unsure because despite Antonio's bravery many
will wonder whether it will be sufficient enough help for him in the
hands of this clearly spiteful Jew Shylock.

The next scene that I am going to explore is Act 3 Scene 1; in this
Shakespeare presents two different characters in the street of Venice,
Salarino and Salanio both Christians and friends of Antonio, at this
point Shakespeare has created a purpose to a focal point in the play
and the actual plot itself. Here we learn of the conversation between
Salarino and Salanio as they discuss Antonio's loss. At this point the
audience is left reeling because Shylock's evil plan has prevailed, as
Antonio will now be unable to pay the bond. We are at this point able
to believe Shakespeare has followed the conventional theory of how the
Jewish man always succeeds and the good Christian man is left the
victim. Solanio even so calls Antonio 'the honest Antonio', and
repeatedly calls him 'good' so that Antonio status is enhanced even
more positively, and the audience is able to side with him even more
so. In contrast Shylocks character is darkened and made more malignant
when Solanio suddenly becomes fearful as he spots Shylock approaching.
Solanio mutters a prayer and likens Shylock to the 'devil'. Again the
idea that Christians have always feared the Jews and their supposed
evils is shown here, and this could be an indication of Shakespeare's
own beliefs.

I am a Jew : hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew

hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passion, 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

(Act 3, scene 1)

However this can be said only to a certain extent as Shakespeare at
the same time contradicts the foreboding view the audience has on
Shylock when Shylock gives a powerful speech about the suffering he
has faced at the hands of Christian because he is a Jew. We express
sympathy with Shylock because he has suffered much discrimination.
Shylocks passionate speech is in a way designed to remind the audience
that Shylock is no different form any other man but it is religion
that makes him an outcast in society.

Shakespeare adds more sympathy when he we learn the only companionship
ever to Shylock was his daughter Jessica. We learn of how his daughter
betrays him for a Christian. The impressions of theses two Christian
characters are tormentors of Shylock in this scene and mock at every
opportunity .

At this point it could be said Shakespeare is intellectually aware of
the sufferings Jews go through and that Jews are not inferior that
they suffer the pains of life that many do but at the end of Shylock's
speech the audience feels they have been left with an imperiously
greedy man who is so bitter he can not let go of his grudge against
those who have mistreated him. At the end of this scene we notice the
presence of another character Tubal who is a fellow Jew. To inform

The final scene, which I am going to explore, is Act 4 Scene 1. This
scene is set in a Vatican court. During the trial scene Shylock is
there to claim his bond. At this point Shakespeare has effectively
portrayed Shylocks obsessive hatred has become apparent towards
Antonio as Shylock is determined to take his revenge. This is all due
as he was treated badly by the Christians by cutting "a pound of

In conclusion Shakespeare's views can be said to be ambiguous, because
at many points in the play he seems to follow the conventional ideas
of Jews being evil, and the stereotypical ideas that Christians had at
that period, give example…. when Shylock is said to…showing
Shakespeare has used the conventional idea that Jews are…evil…however
there are many times when these views are contradicted, for
Shakespeare certainly does evoke much pity from the audience towards
Shylocks sufferings, and at some points he seems to ridicule and shame
the Christians mistreatment of Jews but the constant stream of attack
that we perceive against the Jews diffuse this idea, it could be
better said that Shakespeare to some extent defends the Jews or that
he is open-minded but much evidence in the play suggests that he is
biased, and his views side with the Christians, who at the end have
succeeded against Shylocks evil bond. And these views and ideas are
perceived mainly through the characters Antonio and Shylock, Antonio
the 'hero' and Shylock the 'evil' one, and the play ends with good
prevailing evil, in all Christianity prevailing Judaism, with
Christianity seen as the stronger and superior of the two and this
being Shakespeare's view. Overall at the same time we are left
wondering if Shakespeare is only playing along with reconvention
attitudes towards Jews. So as not to offend his audience and there are
certain attempts he makes that Jews are not evil, that they suffer
much too, referring back to


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