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Merchant Of Venice

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"The Merchant of Venice", by William Shakespeare, uses prejudice and anti-semitism as a dominant theme. Many of the people of Shakespeare's time shared the belief that Jewish people were inferior to Christians, a belief reaching as far back as ancient roman times. Christianity came from Judaism, and the Christians believed themselves to be perfection of the Jewish religion. Christians viewed the Jews as people that needed converting, and took it upon themselves to convert the Jewish population. It is my opinion that Shakespeare does not advocate anti-Semitism but attempts to expose it. When the play is first read, Shylock, the Jew appears to be the villain. Upon closer inspection we see that he is a man that has been persecuted all of his life because of his Jewish background. Shylock is not the villain in this story but a victim of his own anger and frustration at a lifetime of persecution and alienation for being a Jew.

Shylock is a defensive character because society is constantly reminding him he is different in religion, looks, and social stature. He finds comfort in the law because he, himself, is an outcast of society. Shylock, by virtue of being a Jew is an outsider who is not given the same rights as the Christian citizens of Venice. Shylock is regarded as motivated solely by greed, while the Christians see themselves as epitomizing goodness.

16th century Venice was a very modern and progressive city but practiced social exclusion .Venetians were more than willing to take money from the Jews but turned their backs on them and shunned them socially. By the early 1500s, the flood of Jews posed, in the minds of Venetians', a serious threat to the city. The Venetian government needed to confine the Jews to a specific district. This district was called "geto nuovo" (New Foundry) and was the ancestor of the modern-day ghetto. In this way, Venetians could still accept Jewish money, but control their influence upon their way of life. Social exclusion insured that Shylock lived as an outcast. This social exclusion gives rise to Shylocks anger as he knows that he is looked upon with disgust from the Christians. It is the same in modern day American "ghettos" where many impoverished minorities are forced to live. They, like the Jews in the story, are kept separate. This separation leads to misunderstanding and hatred.

Throughout the story Shylock is built up as the villain. For example, Shylocks penalty for not fulfilling the contract is taking an ounce of flesh from Antonio. This is a very extreme consequence and adds to Shylocks persona of being a "greedy Jew" and a devil. In one scene Lancelot, Shylocks serva, is considering working for Bassanio. This scene gives Shakespeare the opportunity to show the hatred that the community feels for Shylock. Launcelot labels Shylock as "the very devil incarnation" (II. ii. 25.). Having Launcelot talk so poorly about Shylock reinforces our thoughts about Shylock. Even Shylocks' own daughter, Jessica, speaks poorly of him, leaving the reader with negative impressions. This secures our own negative feelings about Shylock. With anti-semitic remarks throughout the play, Shakespeare has effectively labeled Shylock as the villain. He has Solanio call Shylock "The villain Jew" and imitate him saying:

"My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!

Fled with a Christian! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!

Justice! The law! My ducats, and my daughter!

A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,

Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter!

And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,

Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!

She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats." (II. viii. 15-22.)

Another way that Shakespeare sets up Shylock to be the villain is the fact that in the story Shylock mentions his missing daughter six times, but he mentions his missing ducats and stones eight times. This makes Shylock seem more concerned with his money and not his daughter again making him a stereotypical Jew and gives us one more thing to hate him for.

Shakespeare is setting Shylock up so that you dislike him, while in fact we begin to feel sorry for him. Shakespeare also shows the human qualities of Shylock throughout the play. Shakespeare brings out these human qualities by causing us to feel sympathy for him. After the loss of his daughter Shylock ran through the streets crying "My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!" as children followed him, mocking him. This causes us to feel sympathy for Shylock, even though we may feel him to be a villain. Besides the loss of his daughter and his ducats, after the trial Shylock also looses his property and his religion. The loss of his property was certainly a blow to Shylock but it nothing compared to his loss of his religion. His forced conversion to Christianity brings out more sympathy for him than what we feel for him losing anything else. Shakespeare manipulates our feelings for Shylock and makes us wonder if he is, in fact, a villain. He gave Shylock the ability to make us hate him at times, and sympathize with him at others.

The main part in the story where we start to see Shylock as the victim is the courtroom scene. Shakespeare opens the courtroom scene by having the Duke refer to Shylock as "A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch" (IV. i. 4.), which once again makes the reader feel sorry for him. One can imagine what it feels like to constantly be berated and its comments like these that seem to fuel Shylocks anger and need for revenge. Though Shakespeare took great pains at making Shylock plausible as villian, he put little effort into his defense during the court hearing. Shylock's only defense is the law. No reference to religion, or how he dislikes Antonio, or how he has been treated by his enemies. Shylock never mentions how Antonio has called him dog, and spit upon him. Shylock intends on keeping this matter businesslike, he dislikes Antonio because "he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance" (I. iii. 41-42). Shylock does allude to the fact that, like the purchased slaves of Venice, he owns the pound of flesh he has demanded, and will do with it as he pleases. Portia enters the courtroom dressed as a young doctor of Padua. She takes the case from the hands of the Duke,



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