The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare’s best known plays and was written within 1596 – 98. This was the Tudor period. The play is set in this time, in Venice, Italy. During the Tudor/Elizabethan period society and morals were very different from today with Christianity being the main religion in Venice and many other places. One of the main disgusts of the time was that of Anti-Semitism or basically the dislike and repulse of the Jewish Religion. Of course this isn’t new as Jew’s have been bullied, spat upon and murdered because of their beliefs throughout history.
Shakespeare’s play homes in on the appalling treatment of Jews and this is the main background of the play, we meet a Jew called Shylock. Shylock is a tormented character during the play; however he is also a tormentor himself. Shylock is a usurer which means he lends money to make profit. This is both wrong in the Christian and Jewish religion but because Shylock doesn’t lend money to other Jews and only to Christians this is fine. Christians regarded usury as a sin, yet as we can see from the play it did happen.
In Act 1 Scene 3 the bond is accepted and Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3000 ducats for three months under one condition that if the money is not returned to Shylock exactly three months from the bond being sealed then Shylock can have an equal pound from, “In what part of your body pleaseth me.” In this bond Shylock is not interested in making more money he wants to spite Antonio, hoping he doesn’t return so he can really smite Antonio. Now the reader would feel that Antonio is a hypocrite as this is against Christian religion yet he is still asking for money from a Jew and Shylock is seen as a horrible man out to see what he can get, thus cause pain to his main enemy, a Christian.
When this play was first performed and it came to the point where the bond was being agreed Shylock says, “I hate him for he is a Christian” this would have only backed up what a Christian audience in the Elizabethan times thought of Jews as a whole. They would have hated Shylock more for this and felt rage against him and this would have been likely to follow throughout the play and thus when Shylock receives his punishment they would have been happy. However, with a modern day audience people have more education and are not brain washed into thinking one thing and so they will read more into the situation and seen that both the Christians and the Jews are in the wrong.
Act 4 Scene 1 is the court scene in which Shylock receives his punishment. When the tables turn, the Duke tells Shylock that he will strip away all of his possessions but spare his life. Since the Duke can legally condemn him to death, sparing his life is the morally correct act. Antonio takes this action one step further when he decides to minimize some of Shylock’s punishment. But we may also question whether it is merciful to return to Shylock half of his goods, only to take away his religion and his profession. By forcing Shylock to convert, Antonio makes him unable to practice usury, which was Antonio’s main reason for berating and spitting on him in public.
Throughout the play the main question is whether or not Shakespeare wanted the audience to feel that Shylock deserved his punishment. In the court scene Shylock is seen as a heartless man when he says, “I hate him for he is a Christian.” This is wrong and hatred against Shylock can be justified as we learn he isn’t just a man who is being bullied for no reason. Conversely, we could see this comment in a way that Shylock is giving as good as he gets and so the main people to blame would be both the Christians and the Jews.
In the same scene we can feel sympathy for Shylock when the Duke and Antonio are speaking, “an inhuman wretch incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.” This is a little uncalled for and the audience can build up commiseration for Shylock. This play sends the audience into all different emotions and really keeps their minds working on whether or not the punishment is deserved and quickly Shakespeare enters a reason for why we should have anger against Shylock when he can’t justify his reason for not accepting more than 3000 ducats to pay off what is owed to him; Shylock wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh. “So I can give no reason, nor I will not” Shylock means here he had no reason for not taking money so he won’t make one up – he is seen to be stubborn, unkind and ghastly. Shylock won’t let up on this bond and his true colours really show through, he is brutal and barbaric and only wants blood, it is easy from here to understand why he deserved his punishment.
Although we can see from the play as whole, most of the time Shylock is heartless and has no feelings no matter what happens and so his punishment he received must have been right. However, if we really read into the situation and think how Jews have been treat throughout history and how Shylock himself has always been treat and spoke about we understand why he has such a grudge against Christians and why he feels he must really hurt one. So when the audiences do read into the play they can sympathize with Shylock and feel that he didn’t deserve his punishment. Overall within the play the Christians and the Jews are both to blame for the awful and foul bullying that go on, on both sides.
I think that Shakespeare intended for his audience to feel anger for the both the Christians in the play and Shylock as they are both dreadful. We see a horrific side to Shylock that may shock many people, but he is complex because his character has to be read into to really understand the moral behind the play; and I think that it is a very big one with many teachings. I don’t think that Shakespeare sided with anyone during the play he just played on real life and that’s what really makes The Merchant of Venice what it is.