Letter: The Merchant of Venice
I have been meaning to write you a letter for the past couple of weeks. But as you know, school can at times become very demanding. This semester has been one of those times. Even though I am enjoying all of my classes, I seem to get the most satisfaction from studying plays written by William Shakespeare. This week we read and partially analyzed the play, The Merchant of Venice.
The play, a comedy which takes place during Elizabethan times, is not considered funny by some of my classmates. Others believe Shakespeare goes too far by using language bordering on the anti-Semitic. I say it’s borderline because I don’t believe Shakespeare’s description of Shylock, a Jewish merchant living in Venice, was done in such a manner as to besmirch the entire Jewish community. I find it humorous, not in a “mirth and merriment” way, but in a dark, satirical way.
Antonio, a maritime merchant, agrees to pay Shylock with a pound of flesh cut from his body, if the loan is not repaid within three months. He signs a contract for the loan as a favor to Bassanio, a friend. This is a strange arrangement since the borrowed money is for Bassanio’s use and not for Antonio’s. At this point in the play, it becomes elementary that Antonio will default on the payment, and ultimately does. Suspense is created by Shakespeare, however, when it is revealed that Shylock does not want the money repaid. He wants to enforce the contract by taking the flesh. What a jerk!
When Shylock offers no mercy to Antonio and insists on upholding the contract verbatim, a thought occurred to me that it was he who hated Christians. Shakespeare reveals it to us in the beginning of the play when Shylock, in an aside, muses,
“How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” (I, iii, 33-39)
“I hate him for he is a Christian?” “Ancient grudge?” Shakespeare doesn’t allow the other characters to state their hatred. I sense that Shylock’s religion is used only to exaggerate the common stereotype of Jews during those times--a caricature. Since many artists offer their interpretation of things in different forms, genre, and mediums, I have concluded that Shakespeare, too, was expressing his, only in drama.
When audiences spend too much time on the anti-Semitic question, they can become distracted from another important and sensitive issue of the time--Shakespeare’s treatment of women characters in his play. William Shakespeare gave Portia’s character intelligence and wit. She is quick to quip. Nerissa also was smart and a loyal “sister.” Jessica was independent and unafraid to challenge tradition or the status quo. All three female characters were remarkably in the vanguard of feminism, thanks to William Shakespeare. I hope you agree.
I must say good-bye for now. I am afraid I have to wash the dishes before my wife gets home from work.