Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Shylock is Stereotypical and Anti-Semitic. Discuss
‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written by William Shakespeare in 1598 and was set around the same time in the city of Venice. Shakespeare makes a number of references to the fact that Shylock is a Jew so the reader is clear about his religious status. There is even mention of Shylock on the front page of the original play, “with the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew.” This suggests that Shylock being a Jew is a key aspect to the play. Throughout the play Shakespeare exaggerates some of Shylock’s characteristics to reinforce the Jewish aspect of his role. Given the era that the play was written in, it is unlikely that Shakespeare was trying to portray Shylock in an anti-Semitic way.
If Shakespeare was being anti-Semitic then he wouldn’t have included Shylock’s famous speech about the way Jews are treated. “He hath disgraced me, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains…and for what reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes?” This speech that Shylock delivers to Solanio and Salarino shows us how angry Shylock is about the way that Antonio treats him. If Shakespeare was being anti-Semitic then he wouldn’t have put it in because he is trying to show other Christians the way in which they treat Jews is wrong; it is a plea for empathy. Shakespeare cleverly sets out the speech in a specific way to have maximum effect. The speech has lots of rhetorical questions, “if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” These questions are trying to show that Jews are exactly the same as everyone else. Also, the words “bleed”, “laugh” and “die” are all things that humans experience; Jews are human too. Shakespeare draws Christians in by portraying the villain as a typical Jew but then turns the whole thing around by showing that Shylock is really a victim in all this; it sends out a message that should challenge the Christian’s conscience.
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In the play, Shakespeare stereotypes Shylock as a cruel, greedy money lender. “It will feed my revenge” “I would my daughter were dead” Shakespeare portrays Shylock as the villainous Jew because he knew it would appeal to the anti-Semitism that most Christians held at that time. Because most people back then were Christian, they would have laughed when Shylock is mistreated because it happened all the time, but nowadays people see this play as being offensive and attacking towards Jews. Shakespeare might have made Shylock a laughable character on purpose so that they feel even more challenged by Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. In modern times people are under a lot more pressure to be politically correct so are a lot less likely to be offensive to Jews. Even so, Shakespeare still gets off so lightly for stereotyping Shylock because he is Shakespeare, one of the greatest writers of all time.
At the beginning of the play Shylock seems to have everything, but by the end of the play he is left with nothing. When his daughter Jessica takes all his money and runs off with a Christian, Shylock’s life seems to be ruined. Shakespeare cleverly uses this to show how much of a monster Shylock is when he says that he wishes his daughter were dead and that he is more interested in his money than his own daughter. His anger could be understandable though, as his daughter did humiliate and betray him, as well as breaking a religious vow. Also, at the trial, Shylock’s evil side returns when he tries to murder Antonio in cold blood, showing that h really is the villain of the story. His villainy is punished however, when he is sentenced to being a Christian. This seems like a just punishment, seeing as though he tried to kill someone. By making the life of the major Jew in the story be completely ruined Shakespeare could be trying to say that if you are a Jew then you will end up with nothing. Even if he isn’t, the fact that the Jew has been destroyed appeals to Christians and makes the story more interesting.
Everyone in the play seems to be ganging up on Shylock. Antonio has obvious hatred towards Shylock because he is a usurer and a Jew; he automatically thinks that Shylock is a bad person just because he is Jewish. Even though this seems like blatant racism nowadays, back then it was commonly accepted. Antonio does however insist on taking out the ‘deadly bond’ with Shylock even when Bassanio warns him not to. Bassanio has very similar prejudices towards Shylock and clearly does not trust him as a money lender. The two ‘jesters’, Solanio and Salarino also seem to enjoy taunting Shylock after his daughter ran away with the same effect as poking an angry bear with a stick. His daughter Jessica also despises her father saying that “our house is hell” and that her father is like the devil. Even the servant Launcelot appears to have anti-Semitic prejudices as he feels the need to get away from his master just because he is a Jew, “I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.” He then eagerly takes up Bassanio’s offer to work for him. Shakespeare makes all these characters turn against Shylock to show how universally hated Jews are in society. Even though this may seem unfair, Shylock probably deserves most of this treatment as he is always being nasty to other people like Antonio. He may have good reason for his nastiness, but he seems to take things a bit too far.
Overall I think that Shakespeare did portray Shylock in a stereotypical way but he wasn’t being anti-Semitic. He only portrayed Shylock as the villain because he knew it would appeal to the Christian masses. Making the villain a Jew and the ‘hero’ a Christian brought a religious feud into the story and made it more interesting. Shylock’s character is all ‘bad’ as Shakespeare does seem to humanise Shylock; making him vulnerable. Shakespeare also uses the prejudice in the play so that we can learn from it and know how wrong it is to be prejudiced. Shakespeare easily got away with making Shylock a stereotypical Jew because he is Shakespeare.