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Merchant Of Venice: Cost Of Alienation

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The Price of Assimilation; The Price of Alienation

Cultural exchange, assimilation, and the trade of ideas have never been achieved without a certain amount of resistance, usually in the form of oppression, prejudice, and genocide. Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice explores this phenomenon in the setting of one of the most diverse cities of the age, as well as in the broader context of the time. Under the guise of international trade and courtship, Shakespeare's play is really about the financial causes of xenophobia, and the consequences to which this fiscal-based fear leads.

Historically present in nearly every case of injustice imposed by one set of people on another is economic stress, or put differently, the shortage of resources. Hitler would never have had as astounding success without the bleak economics of Germany, and racism in France is most prevalent where housing is limited. Our minority house leader, Trent Lott has this to say about the outsider: "I'm highly offended when illegal people come into this country, take jobs illegally"(Fox News, May 1 2006) which clearly presents the problem of the outsider as synonymous to a threat on the economy. In short, when an economy is in danger, it is nearly always followed by a spell of great distrust and danger to anyone outside the majority, or not part of those in power. It is no wonder then, that xenophobia flourishes in Shakespeare's Venice, where merchants are terrified of losing profit, such as Salerio:

"Should I [Salerio] go to a church

and see the holy edifice of stone

and not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,

which touching but my gentle vessels side

would scatter all her spices...

but even now worth this,

and now worth nothing." (Act 1 Scene 1, lines 30-7)

The exaggerated fear or losses indicates an extremely stressful economic situation for these young merchants. In fact, Venice's economic situation seems unhappy for everyone. The young men of Venice are forced to either borrow money, or, in the case of Lorenzo, have it stolen. With all the money invested in foreign ventures, the local economy must have been tenuous at best. The Venetians, much like the British of Shakespeare time (and not unlike our own culture), were faced with a problem; they wished to globalize and gain profit from foreign trade without risking that the foreigners would demand resources and profit back. They wished to expand their boarders, yet feared including others in these boarders.

In this context, we are introduced to Shylock, a character who not only has money to spare, but exacts it from the funds of 'deserving' others. Why can he charge interest and thereby 'burden' the already stressed economy? Because he is different; because he follows a different set of rules regarding the accumulation of wealth among other things. As an outsider he is able to take from the citizens of Venice. It is no wonder that in this context, he is hated by the less fortunate Venetian men. The root of Antonio's anti-semitism is clearly nothing more than his resentment of the economic disparity between them, translated into a broader hatred for his difference. Shylock himself recognizes this root of hatred, even making the connection between the fiscal activity and the anti-Semitic insults: "you have rated me about my moneys and my call me a misbeliever."(Act 1 Scene 3, lines 105-9) In her criticism of the work, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Kim Hall adds interesting historical information, that only serves to enforce economic stress as the root of prejudice in this play. In her first section she refers to the 'charity' of assimilation as seen by the English. This is based in more than religious belief, but in fact. Where economic tension had given rise to prejudice, Christians alone were safe from persecution. "This sense of privation produces an economic imperative in the play, which insists on the exclusion of racial, religious, and cultural difference." (293) Therefore, "Christianity becomes the prerequisite for access to limited resources," (293) making conversion virtually the only license to limited resources, and conversion a charitable gift of this license.

If conversion were viewed as charity, assimilation and intermarriage must have seemed like robbery, making even those who had integrated unsafe. This phenomenon can be seen in the case of Lorenzo's marriage to Jessica, which is seen as an economic threat: "he says you are no good member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians you raise the price of pork."(Act 3 Scene 5, lines 28-30) Clearly, allowing outsiders to join the "citizenship" of Christendom was considered a threat to the economic situation.

Intermarriage as an economic threat is further highlighted in the courting of Portia. She is practically walking economic stability, coming, as she does, with a large fortune. Hall points out that her description as the Golden Fleece, or a foreign conquest, "makes it obvious that there is an unfavorable balance of trade on the marriage market. Rather than bringing wealth into the country, suitors are coming to Belmont to win away Portia's wealth." (296) In her criticism of the foreign suitors, but acceptance of the native, Portia expresses her preference not to spread her resources to outsiders.

One other case of assimilation occurs in this play: that of Shylock's conversion. The conversion is considered "a mercy" even though it requires Shylock to give up his beliefs. Moreover, it is not until Shylock's funds, which were amassed with the use of interest and were therefore in some sense taken from the citizens of Venice, are given back to the state, returning the resources to where they came from, that he is allowed the 'privilege' of assimilation.

Shylock's absurd collateral, that of "a pound of flesh" is a clear allegory of prejudice and fear. As an outsider, he demands



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