William being greedy, merciless and vindictive. Additionally, he is

William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was performed for the first time during the Elizabethan era, not long after Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Marlowe’s play depicts the main character, Barbaras, as a villainous Jew. Shakespeare portrays Shylock similarly, using the character to reflect the marginalized Jewish community in the 16th century. Jews, as a social group, were stereotyped as possessing negative attributes, and this is witnessed in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock as being greedy, merciless and vindictive. Additionally, he is constantly insulted and dehumanised throughout, with characters like Antonio and Portia reinforcing anti-Semitic attitudes at the time. However, Shylock can also be considered a victim and justified in his actions, providing a different perspective on the cruel stereotypes that surrounded the social group. Therefore, it is difficult to recognize whether Shakespeare aimed to present the harsh reality Jews faced by presenting them as victims, or present them as villains due to their nature.At the beginning of the play, the representation of Jews is very stereotypical. They are introduced as nasty and malicious usurers. Shylock, a major character, is introduced as a cruel, Jewish money-lender. This contrasts heavily with Antonio, another major character, who is introduced as a Christian merchant, and is depicted as kind, trusting and generous. Their first major interaction implicitly highlights the division between the two social groups. After Shylock decides not to charge Antonio interest, the latter states “The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.” Immediately, Antonio is seen as the play’s protagonist, and as an embodiment of Christian superiority. Ultimately, this would appeal to a large audience, as the majority was Christian in Elizabethan England. Additionally, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jews was representative of the social group in Venice during the 16th century. They were forced to comply with certain Venetian laws and were confined to the ghettos, further highlighting Jewish inferiority. Therefore, the poor treatment of Jews may not be anti-Semitic, but rather a reflection of the hostile reality they had to live by. Shakespeare challenges his audience’s negative perception of Jews, by presenting Shylock as a victim. During his monologue, Shylock repeatedly asks rhetorical questions to evoke sympathy from the reader. In the line, “If you prick us do we not bleed…? And if you wrong us do we not revenge?” justification for his vengeance is provided. Additionally, the line shows that Shylock does possess the ability to feel pain and show sensitivity, just like a Christian, which again challenges stereotypical perceptions of Jews. Furthermore, it alludes to the fact that despite religion, they are both human. Another example is seen in the same monologue, with Shylock stating, “Hath a Jew not eyes, organs, dimensions, senses, passions and affections.” The semantic field of human anatomy further emphasises that fundamentally they are the same. They are both human. They are the same physically and possess and express the same emotions a Christian would, bringing in the theme of appearance vs. reality. The monologue paints a different picture of Jews at the time, and forces the audience to reconsider their perceived view on Jews as a social group and to reconsider their alienation from society. The marginalisation of Jews is portrayed in the court scene, through Shylock’s discrimination by Portia and the Duke. Portia meets Shylock for the first time during this scene and often refers to him as the “Jew”. By noting him as the “Jew” and not “Shylock”, he is removed of his identity, his sense of belonging and that in the eyes of a Christian, all Jews are viewed as inferior. Additionally, now that Shylock finally opted for revenge after being oppressed by an arrogant Venice society, he is considered a fiendish, cruel “Jew”.  He is referred to as a “foreigner” simply because he is a Jew. He is subsequently punished because he is a “foreigner” threatening a Venetians life, conveying the fact that Jews are aliens and outsiders to society. The term also displays bias towards Christian Venetians in the law. Shylock is also referred to as an “inhuman wretch, incapable of pity”, which enforces stereotypes of him being greedy, merciless, and usurious, and the court uses this to humiliate him. The court’s desire to humiliate Shylock by forcing his conversion and abandonment of his valued earnings reflect the Venetians’ pursuit in dehumanizing and insulting Jews. Finally, the play’s anti-semitic end shows that although Shakespeare reveals intentions to portray a different image of Jews, he isn’t above society and still needs to make money by appealing to a large audience. To conclude, Shylock is presented as an outsider from society and is belittled by the actions of other characters, which raises the concern of anti-semitism. However, despite the perceived stereotypes of Jews at the time, there are many instances where Shakespeare aims to portray a differing image of Jewish people from the socio-political image prevalent in his time. As a result, Barbaras may draw comparisons on the surface, but on a deeper level Shylock is a contrast, rather depicting the cruel reality of Jews during the Elizabethan era. This relates to Bindu Sharma’s statement in her article for the IUP Journal of English Studies, “Text is always rooted in the socio-cultural milieu it represents; and that it loses its real meaning when considered in isolation.”

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