Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic Play?

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Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic Play?

The Merchant of Venice features a Jewish character that is abused and slandered by nearly every character in the play. Throughout the play the behavior of these characters seems justified. In this way, The Merchant of Venice appears to be an anti-Semitic play. However, The Merchant of Venice contains several key instances, which can be portrayed in a way that criticizes anti-Semitism. The first instance occurs in Act 1, scene 3 when the audience realizes that Shylock has every right to be extremely angry with Antonio. The second instance occurs when Shylock breaks out of his one-dimensional character form in Act 3, scene 1 in an extremely powerful speech that attacks the very foundations of anti-Semitism and shows his sorrow that Jessica ran off with Lorenzo. The third instance encompasses all of Act 4, scene 1. Although anti-Semitism is quite prevalent throughout the scene, it is clear that the characters persecuting Shylock are being extremely hypocritical by returning Shylock's malicious wishes with more malice of their own.

Shylock is characterized nearly throughout the play as an evil, murderous man. This image of him is supported by the excessive bloodlust that Shylock exhibits. The audience is made to hate Shylock early on. In Act 1, scene 3, Shylock tells the audience that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." (1, 3, 42) For an audience composed nearly completely of Christians, this was a line simply meant to provoke the audience to hate Shylock. Jessica relates how "when I was with him I have heard him swear / To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, / That he would rather have Antonio's flesh / Than twenty times the value of the ...

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... rather than a villain, by emphasizing the speech that he makes to Lorenzo and Tubal and by making Portia's cruelty in Act 4, scene 1 especially evident. Because of this notion, The Merchant of Venice is not innately anti-Semitic. It can either be anti-Semitic or an aggressive criticism of anti-Semitism, or anything in between? It depends on how it is interpreted by directors and by actors and how the audience receives it.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Danson, Lawrence. Anti-Semitism in "The Merchant of Venice." New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Granville-Barker, Harley. "The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, Leonard Dean, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Shakespeare, William. "The Merchant of Venice." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Oxford: Shakespeare Head Press, 1998.
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