The Merchant of Venice: Hath not a Jew Mercy?

Many of William Shakespeare’s plays have sparked controversy. Probably the one that has sparked the most controversy is The Merchant of Venice, which many intellectuals have dubbed an anti-Semitic play. The character that this discussion centers around is Shylock, the rich moneylender Jew. The problem with most of these anti-Semitic arguments is that they lack the perspective of the sixteenth century audience. Throughout Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (M of V), the audience’s perception of Shylock moves between utter hatred and varying amounts of pity.

In contrast to today’s audience, the original ixteenth century audience saw Shylock’s religion as his biggest shortcoming. Our first glimpse of Shylock’s character comes in Act I, scene 3, where Shylock reveals to the audience why he hates Antonio. The first reason he gives of why he hates Antonio is because he is a Christian. (I. iii. 43) This to the sixteenth century audience would be unreasonable, and this would evoke a sort of villainy towards Shylock. But a few moments later, the audience witnesses Shylock’s speech about Antonio’s abuses towards Shylock. (I. iii. 07-130) This speech does well in invoking the audience’s pity, however little it might be in the sixteenth century. But again at the end, Shylock offers that Antonio give up a pound of flesh as penalty of forfeiture of the bond, which Antonio sees as a joke, but which Shylock fully intends to collect. (I. iii. 144-78) This action negates any pity which Shylock would have one from the audience just a few moments before. Shakespeare, in this scene, uses Shylock’s dialogue and soliloquies to push loyalties of the audience back and forth in a result of a negative view of Shylock.

In Act II, scene 8, Salarino and Salanio describe to the audience Shylock’s reaction when he finds out that his daughter, Jessica, has run away to marry a Christian. Says Salanio: I never heard a passion so confused, So strange, outrageous, and so variable, As the dog Jew did utter in the streets: My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter! And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones, Stolen by my daughter! Justice! ind the girl; She hat the stones upon her, and the ducats. ‘” (II. viii. 12-22) One can’t help wondering if the message is only as trustworthy as the messenger, for as we know, Salarino and Salanio have expressed their hatred towards Shylock. However, the sixteenth century audience wouldn’t have any reason not to believe these two men, because they have given no reason not to be to their perspective. In this re-count of events we notice that Shylock cries “O my ducats! O my daughter! ” many times, which suggests that Shylock sees Jessica as just another one of her material goods, as the ducats.

The audience would not respect this at all, after all, one’s daughter should be much more important than any material wealth. This is yet another instance which the audience views Shylock as a shallow miser who only thinks of himself. Act III, scene 1 is probably the biggest turning point in the play, especially for the audience. After being badgered by Salarino and Salanio, Shylock manipulates the audience’s sympathies by offering a monologue on revenge. The scene is as follows: Salarino. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what’s that good for? Shylock.

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what is his reason? I am 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? f you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wring 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. (III. i. 53-76) This monologue succeeds in silencing Shylock’s critics both on and off stage. Shylock has successfully made the audience stop and think, and even side with him.

He makes the audience say, “You know what, he’s right. ” Any prejudice the audience might have had has been put aside by this speech. Shylock, of course, won’t keep the audiences pity for long, though. When Tubal enters Shylock says to him, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin! (III. i. 91-4) This is the same reason the audience lost pity for Shylock before, because he is so shallow that he cares more about his ducats than he does his own daughter.

He would like to see his daughter dead with the ducats and jewels in her coffin. What kind of caring father is that? The audience certainly would not take to this very kindly; and of course, Shylock has lost our pity once again. Shylock makes himself even more despised by the audience in Act III, scene 3, where he makes it clear to Antonio and to the audience that the penalty of a pound of Antonio’s flesh will be collected. He continually says that he ill have his bond and that he has no reason to show mercy. (III. iii. 5-17) More and more the audience begins to hate what Shylock does.

He acts purely out of law and shows no mercy towards Antonio. Act IV, scene 1 is where the true shallowness and villainy of Shylock becomes apparent. The others continually beg Shylock to show mercy, and he refuses, because it is not so outlined in the bond. He continually looks to the bond to dictate his behavior that it is ironic that it is the bond that eventually destroys him. He goes from threatening somebody’s life because of the bond, to being posed with death because of the same bond. And when he is in the same position that Antonio was in, he is shown mercy when he himself would show none.

It would seem to the original audience that the most merciful act was to make Shylock convert to Christianity, therefore saving his soul from eternal damnation. But to Shylock, it is probably the worst punishment conceivable because, after all, he would become what he hated most, a Christian. Perhaps this is the comedy of this tragedy: the villain becomes what he loathes most. The sixteenth century audience would have definitely hated the character of Shylock. It probably wouldn’t have been uncommon to hear boos and hisses very time he came on stage in an original production.

Probably the only time when there wouldn’t have been jeers from the audience would have been in Act III, scene 1; the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. The sympathies of the audience were definitely in full swing in this play, going back and forth between a little bit of pity to a lot of hatred. Probably the most underlying quality of Shylock that the audience hated most was his religion. Shylock was the embodiment of all that was bad about Jews, how they killed Christ and the like. But still, there had to have been some pity at some level from the audience.

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