A Study of Racist Elements in William Shakespeares Merchant of Venice
The context in which William Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice in 1597 was racist and prejudiced against different religions in the society that existed then. At that time England was a protestant country that had recently been under threat from catholic Spain and before that the Jews had been exiled from the country. Therefore Jews, coloured people and Catholics were generally hated and very rarely seen except in ports around the coast, nevertheless, Shakespeare makes fun of other races and religions in the play. It can be argued that the Merchant of Venice is a racist play by modern standards but this is because nowadays England is populated by many different religions and races so prejudice is not only frowned upon, but also is against the law because all human beings are seen as equal whereas in the 16th century there were no different races or religions unless they were practiced in secret, and also against the law. While in view of the condemnation of racism against the play, I will study three scenes in detail. Beginning with Act one Scene three. In this scene Bassanio, Antonio and shylock enter into the bond of which so much of the play is based. This scene I feel has a highly controversial content. It commences with Bassanio (the merchant Antonio’s destitute friend) asking Shylock (the Jewish money-lender) for money to go see the woman he wants to marry (Portia). Bassanio requires 3000 ducats (Venetian money) for three months. After these three months on the due date Antonio’s (the rich Venetian merchant) ships will have returned and so Antonio shall pay back the money, Bassanio needs to borrow money as Antonio’s ship carry all of his money and they are at sea. Shylock has been pestered and assaulted by Antonio and he makes a heart-felt plea to be considered as a human and not an animal or a lower being just because of his religion.
fThe problems a modern production faces when they set out upon this task is that the lay is so unorthodox and not politically correct and could be criticised for its use of language and the content of racism that has caused so much controversy over the years. This can lead to people not appreciating the full content of the play as much may have to be cut in order for the play to be performed to a modern audience without any of them taking offence. The channel four production, for example is that as it tries to bfe politically correct, it looses much of its anti-Antonio/ pro-Shylock content in act 1 scene three, such as Antonio: ” The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose”. The devil it refers to is an anti-Semitic name for a Jew, this has been edited from the channel four production because of the nature of prejudice in the line that implies that the Jewish scriptures are enabled to be adapted to the use of the Jew under question, this could be offensive as it implies that the scriptures (torah) support the money lending frowned upon by many even though it was the only way a Jew in the state of Venice and many other places could earn any living at all. Also edited out was again Antonio: “A goodly Apple rotten at heart” the “apple” is the Torah (Jewish holy scriptures), which again is fairly insulting to the Jewish faith to hear that Antonio finds their way of life evil. At the same time as both of these comments are made as well as other types during the scene you find that it could be interpreted that Bassanio and Antonio were obviously scrutinising Shylock for a sign of embarrassment or slip-up in some way, overtly discussing him right in front of him, even in his own office which is very disrespectful toward Shylock. The lines that are hazardous in this play that were left in the channel four production such as: Shylock: ” I hate him for he is a Christian”, this is blatantly obvious that it is a racist comment however it was left in the play, yet I feel that this unbalances the hatred and sorrow you feel for b9oth Shylock and Antonio that upon reading the full script you feel fairly equally, tipping the balance toward hatred of Shylock. Shylock: “You, that did void your rheum upon my beard And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur”, these lines mean that Antonio has spat upon Shyl9ocks beard and kicked him as you would a stray dog purely because he is a Jew, further on in the speech he mentions all the bad things Antonio has ever done to him, and now Antonio is asking for forgiveness purely so he can borrow money of Shylock without apology. This may not be particularly offensive to one culture but for anyone to spit on anyone else because of his or her beliefs is disgusting and odious.
Then Shylock agrees that Bassanio can have his 3000 ducats as long as Antonio is bound without interest, by a deal that is legally made at a notary for if Antonio does not payback the loan by the final date, Shylock may cut a pound of flesh from anywhere in his body that Shylock chooses, but when you realise the hurtful things Antonio has done towards Shylock and fellow Jews you can begin to appreciate why Shylock wants to kill Antonio which is inevitable if Shylock cuts a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body with the medicinal standards and technology being what it was compared to what it is today in modern hospitals. The next scene I am going to study is Act two Scene one. In this scene Portia is meeting the Prince of Morocco who has come to try his luck for Portia’s hand in marriage, however Portia herself cannot choose, each of her suitors must pick a casket either gold, silver or lead, only one contains Portia’s picture and therefore herself in marriage. The Prince begins with the line “Mislike me not for my complexion” this implies that he is often disliked because of the colour of his skin, similar to the life of Shylock, he then goes on to say, that if you should find the whitest of white people and see who’s blood is more red with love, his would be more red and therefore he would be a better husband. Then Portia says ” Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair As any comer I have look’d on yet For my affection”, however as much as this seems like a complement it is in fact an insult because she has disliked all of her suitors that have come to her that are of a different culture to her own for example she disliked and commented on her hatred and disgust of them to her maid-in-waiting such as the Scotsman, Englishman, German, Frenchman and Spaniard that has come to propose marriage. This scene does not have a highly racist content on its own, however when studied along with the other scenes involving Portia and her suitors you can discover many remarks that avoid confrontation with discourteous insults, which is helpful to a modern production as very little would have to be cut. The next scene I will analyse for racist or prejudiced content is Act four Scene 1. This scene takes place in the court in which Portia (By now Bassanio’s wife) as she is playing a man to fight the case against Shylock, who still intends to kill Antonio because he believes it is now his right. After many pleas of mercy to Shylock from Portia (in this scene called Balthazar) and the Duke of Venice he still refuses thus showing all the determined nature of his quest almost to bring to justice the person to whom he owes so much malicious behaviour by way of insults and generally discourteous acts of racism.
At this point after reading much of the play, you begin to feel sorry for Shylock, his daughter has ran away with a Christian to get married, after taking what was left of his money and everyone is teasing him and pushing him over the edge with anger which he feels he needs to vent on a Christian for after all, they have caused so much of his suffering. Then you realise how unkind and patient he has become, although Bassanio has offered far too much money to Shylock, Shylock refuses still craving his pound of human flesh which is useless to all, except for those wishing to kill someone. All the way through this scene the Christians involved plainly call him “Jew” behind his back and to his face as well as though he didn’t deserve a name at all, because of his race and religion. At the end of the scene after he is deprived of his pound of flesh because the bond doesn’t mention blood, as it is illegal for a Jew to spill one drop of Christian blood, because it was believed that Christian blood was more valuable than Jewish blood. He is also deprived of the extra money he was offered earlier by Bassanio, and then he is cheated out of even the money he was owed. The court then decide that the bond was in fact illegal, because it would prove that Shylock was guilty of plotting to kill a Christian (a crime punishable by death although I doubt Jews would have had the same law applied if a Christian killed a Jew) and so all of his worldly goods and assets were absorbed away from him, half to the state of Venice and half to Antonio, who promises that after he (Antonio) is dead, the money shall go to Jessica and Lorenzo (by now Shylocks daughter and son-in-law) which is purely teasing him, that the child who disowned him and her faith should receive all the money he has worked to build up. After all of that he wants to leave, but he is not allowed, there is another clause, that puts his life at the hands of the Duke, who then says, “thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it:” The Duke, thinking he is being generous, forgiving and merciful, when in fact Shylock would rather die, Antonio is forcing him to give up his faith and give his disowned daughter money, whereas all the Christians believe this to be incredibly merciful, Shylock sees it to be a more bitter punishment that death. He tries to argue a tearful speech “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that. You take my house when you do take the prop That doth sustain my house: you take my life When you do take the means by which I live.”
This speech, heartfelt, makes you wonder whether killing him would be better, almost more Christian, to kill him seems more merciful than to leave him as a Christian, with no money, no business and no daughter. In conclusion I would say that in fact, the racism upon which you first encounter is a vital piece of a play, which on many levels could seem entirely different. I’ve found that at first, if you take away the racist comments, could be a story to read, however with the racism and underlying messages I believe that you experience a new side of human nature, that you may already know exists. It shows us the morality behind human nature as in an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth et cetera. The principle behind this and the play is the same, if someone treats you badly, for instance in racism, then of course you want revenge, which is what Shylock wants, but in the end it can and should be denied, however if it was an eye for an eye the world would be blind and there is no point in beginning the process in the first place. During Shakespeare’s time there was a lot of racism, purely because of the fact that there were few if any different cultures in England, and what is new is always strange, and although it seems difficult for a modern production to face the difficulties involved with this production, I feel it would take to much away from English literature and psychology even to edit anything really out of this play because it seems that it gives an insight into the wrongs of human nature then and now, and how much destruction it can cause. I also feel that the audience of a production should be aware of the content of this play, before seeing it as I don’t feel any of the content could be edited.
January 28, 2023