Understandably, The Merchant of Venice is the subject of much scrutiny by critics and scholars. However, before labelling the play as inherently anti-Semitic, it is important to consider the circumstances of the play’s time and its intended audience.
Context of The Merchant of Venice
During 1596-1598, when The Merchant of Venice was written, the world was starting to become a smaller place. Throughout this period, Shakespeare’s audiences were learning about new countries, cultures and people including Jews, who would have been deemed ‘exotic’ to the Elizabethans of London. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of them would have never encountered a Jewish person.
At this time, usury, which, by law, was the only profession that Jews were allowed to have in 16th century Europe, was looked upon as a great evil and the cause of many merchants’ downfall. Moreover, London was a growing centre of commerce and therefore Shakespeare’s audience would have consisted of a large number of merchants. Subsequently, jokes about evil usurers in the Elizabethan era would be akin to jokes about evil investment bankers today.
The Charact er of Shylock
Shylock is a thoroughly fascinating character, not least because, despite being the most memorable, he is not a prominent figure within the play. In fact, Shylock appears in just 5 scenes and has a total of 79 lines. However, as with Falstaff in Henry IV, Shakespeare seems to have become fixated on a relatively minor character and he, in effect, steals the show.
Of course, Shakespeare’s decision to make more of Shylock’s character could be related to the success of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. However, unlike Barabas, Shylock is not simply a two-dimensional caricature. In other words, he is more than a comedy villain.
Shylock as a Sympathetic Character
Indeed, there are sections of the play that allow directors and actors to portray Shylock as a victim rather than a villain. Many people cite the trial scene as a good example of the deceitful and dishonest means of Shylock’s downfall. After all, had it not been for Portia pretending to be a doctor of law, Shylock would have succeeding in claiming his pound of flesh. Similarly, Lorenzo, with a little help from his friends, uses trickery to steal away with Jessica. Therefore, the trickery and dishonesty that is accused of Shylock is actually perpetrated by the Christian characters of the play.
Of course, one of the most memorable speeches of the play, “hath not a Jew eyes?”, can be used to demonstrate the sympathetic way in which Shakespeare has written Shylock’s character.
However, if an interpretation of the play treats Shylock as a victim, it follows that all of the other characters must be villains, which is perhaps possible, but almost certainly not the intention of Shakespeare.