Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic Play?
The Merchant of Venice features a Jewish character that is abused and slandered by nearly every character in the play. Throughout the play the behavior of these characters seems justified. In this way, The Merchant of Venice appears to be an anti-Semitic play. However, The Merchant of Venice contains several key instances, which can be portrayed in a way that criticizes anti-Semitism. The first instance occurs in Act 1, scene 3 when the audience realizes that Shylock has every right to be extremely angry with Antonio. The second instance occurs when Shylock breaks out of his one-dimensional character form in Act 3, scene 1 in an extremely powerful speech that attacks the very foundations of anti-Semitism and shows his sorrow that Jessica ran off with Lorenzo. The third instance encompasses all of Act 4, scene 1. Although anti-Semitism is quite prevalent throughout the scene, it is clear that the characters persecuting Shylock are being extremely hypocritical by returning Shylock's malicious wishes with more malice of their own.
Shylock is characterized nearly throughout the play as an evil, murderous man. This image of him is supported by the excessive bloodlust that Shylock exhibits. The audience is made to hate Shylock early on. In Act 1, scene 3, Shylock tells the audience that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." (1, 3, 42) For an audience composed nearly completely of Christians, this was a line simply meant to provoke the audience to hate Shylock. Jessica relates how "when I was with him I have heard him swear / To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, / That he would rather have Antonio's flesh / Than twenty times the value of the sum / That he did owe him." (3, 2, 296-300) Once Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, stealing Shylock's ducats, Shylock tells Tubal that he wishes his daughter "were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear; would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!" (3, 1, 87-90) When Shylock discovers that Antonio's ship will not come in, his cruelty is revealed. He declares, "I'm very glad of it. I'll plague him, I'll torture him, I am glad of it." (3, 1, 115-116) At the end of Act 3, scene 1, Shylock's true motive is revealed. Shylock says, "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will." (3, 1, 125-127) All these comments clearly attempt to paint Shylock as a money-worshipping murderer and not as a person.
In every confrontation with Shylock, the other characters attack him with insults that make him appear even viler than his cruel demeanor portrays. There is a common trend throughout the play of demonizing Shylock. In Act 1, scene 2, Antonio counters a legitimate argument that Shylock makes to support his usurping by stating that "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose!" (1, 3, 107) In Act 2, scene 2, Lancelet Gobbo...