Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice continues to receive criticism because of the many controversial topics integrated within an already debatable plot. One such reproach is whether the play demonstrates factors of anti-Semitism or persists as a criticism of the anti-Sematic tendencies of Christians during Shakespeare’s time. The factor of genre plays an essential role in how the play is interpreted when regarding anti-Semitism, particularly when viewed as either a romantic comedy or a genre that better encompasses the financial, moral, and religious conflict that is so prominent throughout the play. For instance, when analyzed as a comedy, Shylock’s malevolence may not exactly be reviewed as comical, but nevertheless seems peculiar and outrageous at times. From a religious standpoint, however, the vehement interactions between Shylock and Antonio are clearly centered on revenge and appear much more violent than a comedic standpoint may suggest. Furthermore, because the play is “laced… with cobwebs of fraud, theft, and speculation on all sides, it is less about the pursuit of love than about the pursuit, possession, and power of money” (Russin 115). In short, while some elements of the play may be substantially different in regards to the context of today’s time period versus Shakespeare’s time period since the complexity and rich use of language may be particularly susceptible to various interpretations, there are numerous examples that clearly demonstrate certain actions of Jewish oppression. Specifically, Shakespeare implicitly explores trends of anti-Semitism and establishes an ambiguous identity for Shylock by providing both a symbolic portrayal of the Jewish culture and a distinct dichotomy between Shylock and Antonio.
Shakespeare alienates Shylock by portraying him as an undoubtedly shrewd, manipulative, and somewhat pretentious character through his questionable actions. The depth of Shylock’s villainy is explored throughout the play, with his rude, and even at times malicious, diction towards the other characters in the play, his stiff bond of a pound of flesh, and obsession over his riches and finances. Shylock distinctly chastises others and reveals he can be incredibly bigoted, such as when he proclaims towards Antonio:
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 (Shakespeare 1.3.42-47)
Shylock makes it clear that his hatred for the other characters is perpetuated by the sole fact that they are Christians. This vicious cycle of hatred between Shylock and the Christian characters is maintained by the alleged “ancient grudge” that has been established between the two religions. Likewise, for Shylock to request a pound of flesh as his bond from Antonio is a horror all in itself. Shylock does not...