Coursework- The Merchant of Venice: Who shows more prejudice, the Christians or the Jews?
The Merchant of Venice is a play about prejudice, racism, and stereotyping. In this essay I shall discuss the different views that the Christians and the Jews have of each other in the play 'The Merchant of Venice', and comment on them. I shall decide which nation shows the most prejudice toward the other. The Oxford dictionary definition of prejudice is: 'Irrational dislike of something or someone showing no logic.' I shall be discussing how Shakespere conveys this through his characters, and how the prejudice effects the audience of Elizabethan times and of today. Most of the prejudice in this play is centred upon two of the main characters, (Antonio a Christian and Shylock a Jew), so I shall be concentrating on them.
The first sign of prejudice in this play is from the Jew Shylock. When Antonio first appears in the third scene Shylock says aside to the audience 'I hate him for he is a Christian.' This is prejudice because Shylock seems to give no other indication to why he hates Antonio other than the reason that he is a Christian. Shylock is stereotyping Antonio as a Christian and saying he hates him because the Jews have always been persecuted by the Christians because they blame the Jews for putting Christ to death; and so in retaliation, the Jews have always disliked the Christians as well. Another reason that the Christians didn't like the Jews was because they needed them. Jews were traditionally stereotyped as money lenders, and although not every Jew was one, most were. It was against the law to be a money lender in Elizabethan England, and so although people didn't want to borrow money, they had to. The Jews were the people that the Christians needed, and so they disliked them. Jews hated the Christians for hating them. Shylock however then goes on to say that he also hates Antonio because he is bad for business. Antonio lends money to his friends without charging interest. Therefore Antonio must also be showing prejudice towards Shylock when he says 'I am as like to call thee so again, to spet on thee so, to spurn thee too.' This is said after an angry speech from Shylock complaining about how Antonio is prejudiced towards him. Antonio I think shows much more prejudice than Shylock here because he has no reason for spitting on or kicking Shylock apart from the fact that he is a jew. Shylock hates Antonio partly because of the lack of business. In Shakesperian times you would applaud Antonio for treating the Jew badly, but a modern audience would feel uncomfortable watching this scene.
When the Prince of Morocco comes to Belmont to win Portia's hand in marriage he makes a strong spech about how she mustn't show prejudice towards him because he is black. 'Mislike me not for my complexion.' Portia is not prejudiced towards him, but earlier in the play she joked with her servant about men from different countries. Portia stereotyped each one to the country that they came from. 'How do you like the young German?' 'Very viley in the morning when he is sober, and most viley in the afternoon when he is drunk'. This is not serious prejudice however, as Portia and Nerissa are just having some fun. They are stereotyping these men to men they may have met in the past, or have heard about.
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More prejudice is shown when Salario and Solanio review what has happened to Bassanio. They talk about how Shylock has lost everything, and is running round Venice shouting 'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter and my ducats!' A Shakesperian audience would find it shocking that a Jewish girl has run away with a Christian, but a modern audience would think nothing of it. Therefore at this point a Shakesperian audience would be feeling a bit more sympathy towards Shylock. Salario and Solanio are making fun of Shylock's loss when Shylock is so distressed:
'As the dog Jew did utter in the streets 'My ducats, oh my daughter and my ducats! Fled with a Christian!'...Why all the boys in Venice follow him!'
This proves they show prejudice towards the Jews because they do not feel sympathy for someone who has lost everything, when they do not know him. They are only making fun of him because he is a Jew.
In Act three scene one, Salario asks what Shylock would need a pound of Antonio's flesh for, Shylock answers 'To bait fish withal: If it will feed nothing else it will feed my revenge.' This shows that Shylock hates Antonio so much that he would kill him just to use his flesh for fish bait. Shylock does have reasons for his hatred towards Antonio being that he is bad for business, but this is still no reason to get even angrier than he was before. His anger is due to his daughter running away with a Christian and stealing his money; but Shylock is stereotyping all Christians to be the same, so he is blaming his losses on Antonio. 'I am very glad of it, I'll plague him, I'll tourture him.' This is prejudice because it should be Lorenzo he should be angry at for taking Jessica if he has to be angry at someone, and not Antonio. Therefore he has no logical reason for being angry at Antonio.
Shylock goes on to give a list of all of the terrible things that Antonio has done to him 'heated mine enemies; and what is his reason? I am a Jew.' This shows that Shylock knows that Antonio and other Christians are prejudiced towards Jews and he thinks it is wrong. He goes on to explain that Jews are the same as Cristians 'Has not a Jew eyes?'. Shylock is explaining the terrible prejudice that Antonio has shown towards him to the Christians. It is a very emotional speech, and you would think that Salario and Solanio would feel sorry for him, or sympathise, but they do not react, and follow the example of Antonio's prejudice. 'A third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew.' They comment on the entrance of another Jew to the scene, in the same way that they did to Shylock when they said 'lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.' They do not even know Tubal, the other Jew, and so are showing great prejudice toward the Jews in general. This is because although they may have a grudge against Shylock for being Antonio's enemy; they have never met Tubal before, and are stereotyping him to be the same as Shylock.
In the same scene, Tubal tells Shylock of one of Antonio's ships sinking. 'An argosy cast away comimg from Tripolis.' Shylock is delighted at this news. 'I thank thee good Tubal-good news, good news! Ha ha!' This is showing prejudice on Shylock's behalf, because he is showing his hate for Antonio by laughing at his losses, but for no logical reason. This is also hypocritical, because Shylock was complaining at Antonio for that very thing. 'Laughed at my losses, mocked my gains.'
At the end of the second scene of the act, Gratiano makes a passing comment about Jessica being a Jew, although it is in good humour. 'But who comes here? Jessica and his infidel?' He refers to Jessica as an 'infidel' because she is a Jew and for no other reason. He does not however say it directly to her, and he is not being serious; but it shows what Christians think of Jews generally- as non believers. This is certainly prejudice because the Christians disliked the Jews purely for that reason.
In Act three, it is made clear that all the Christians hated or disliked the Jews, because they are all biased towards Antonio. Solanio says 'I am sure the Duke will never grant this forfeiture to hold.' This shows that Solanio thinks that even the duke of Venice will not admit that Antonio is to let Shylock kill him, just because Shylock is a Jew. This is prejudice, because it shows that the most important person in the city will not abide by the law because a Jew might get his way.
Shylock seems excited about being able to kill Antonio. He will not listen to the Christians asking him to spare Antonio's life; and he is so keen to get revenge that he will show no mercy. 'I'll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak. I'll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.' This is showing prejudice towards Antonio because there is no revenge to get on Antonio. Shylock wants revenge mainly for Jessica running away with a Christian, and for his ducats, jewels and stones being stolen, neither of which was Antonio's fault. Therefore, the revenge is irrational and not logical. Shylock could be wanting revenge for all of the horrible things that Antonio did to him in the past, 'You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.' but these happened a long time ago, and the more recent happenings are what has made Shylock so angry.
In the court scene where Shylock is to fulfill his bond, Shylock admits to his prejudice by saying 'You may ask me why I rather a weight of carrion flesh than three thousand ducats- I'll not answer that! But say it is my humour- is it answered?' Here Shylock is telling the court that he wants to kill Antonio because of his humour. He is not giving a straight answer to the court to annoy them, because he knows that they are all on Antonio's side. He knows that they want a reason, so that they can find a way round it and save Antonio, but Shylock will not give one so that he will get his bond. This is showing prejudice because Shylock is giving no logical reason for wanting to kill someone. 'So can I give no reason, nor I will not, more than lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio.' This shows that Shylock is now admitting to his prejudice towards Antonio, because he knows that it is the law to follow through his bond, and the court can do nothing about it. Therefore he need not show any reason for wanting to kill Antonio, and so will not give no reason. Bassanio picks up on this, and answers 'Do all men kill the things they do not love?' because he wants to know why and is becoming agitated as his friend is going to be killed for no reason. At this point in the play, a Shakesperian audience would be just as angry as Bassanio at Shylock. They will think of Shylock as a stereotypical Jew who is very mean, and crafty. They will be feeling a lot of sympathy for the Christians. On the other hand, an audience of today would be more on Shylock's side because of all of the horrible things Antonio had done to him in the past. They would know that the recent mishaps were not Antonio's fault however, and so would partly on Antonio's side as well. An Elizabethen audience would be very much like the Christians in the play because they would all be Christians. Therefore they would show just as much prejudice towards the Jews as Antonio, or Bassanio would.
Nearer the end of this scene, when the tables have been turned, Gratiano calls Shylock an infidel as he did earlier in the play to Jessica. This time he is being serious however, and it seems this is a common word used among the Christians talking about the Jews. This shows prejudice towards the Jews, as they are called 'misbelievers' for no reason. The Christians call them such because they do not believe in the Christian faith, but the do believe in the Jewish faith. It is a very harsh word to call somebody as well, so it is therefore prejudiced. The fact that Portia has turned the bond against Shylock shows prejudice a well, because the bond stated that if Antonio did not pay back the loan he must let Shylock take a pound of his flesh. As this was the law in those times, the bond should have been carried through; but as it was turned around in Antonio's favour to the extent that Shylock should die, then it is surely against the law. This means that all of the Christians in the city are willing to break the law so that one person can live. if this had happened the other way round, the judge would take no time at all to conclude that the Jew may be killed, as it is the law. Therefore it should be no different this way round. Killing someone is obviously great prejudice because it cannot be reversed, so all of the Christians are showing a lot of prejudice here. It makes the Christians seem more important and superiour to the Jews.
The court asking Shylock to give up all of his possessions is showing prejudice as well, because the Christians are making him do it only becaus he is a Jew. If he were a Christian they would not go that far, so they are making him do something for no logical reason.
In conclusion, I think that the Christians as a whole show more prejudice than the Jews. This is partly because there are more of them, and partly because the prejudice they show is stronger. The Christians seem to show a lot more prejudice than the Jews throughout the play, but it is all said by different people, whereas all of the prejudice shown by the Jews was by Shylock alone. I think that the Christians showed more prejudice over all because the Jews were a disinherited nation and had settled in their country as if it were their own. The Christians would not like this, and so turned against them. I think that the Christian's prejudice is unessecary, and so would a modern audience, although in Shakesperian times it would have been thought right. This is probably why Shakespere wrote this play. To pass the message to the people of England that the jews are human beings too. Shylock is put forward as mean, evil, cunning, greedy, and scheming in some places, yet in others he seems tender and very much like the Christians. The Christians are put forward as kind, clever, generous people who would never hurt anybody. This is obviously biased, but Shakespere still gets the message through that the Jews are no different in a very clever way.
Hannah Calver 10K