A Legacy of Prejudice, Persecution and Plight

Suvrat Arora muses on the impact of a classic that seems coloured with biases. On the other hand, it showcases historic prejudices that should have changed with time, learning from the errors of the past… as humankind should have revered many other historic books…

Literature, especially fiction, can inarguably exist without any caveats unless it endeavours to loosen the rudimentary threads of morality and integrity that constitute the society’s fabric. When works of imagination are ingrained with concrete bigotry and unethicality, they slink into reality and contaminate peoples’ opinions to fuel contemporary predicaments.

For the past four hundred years, Shakespeare’s comical play, The Merchant of Venice, has been widely absorbed — in various the formats like academic readings, stage performances or movie adaptations. While stage performances and movie adaptations might mask and mend the ruthlessness against the play’s Jewish ‘villain’, a scrutiny of the original text reveals Shakespeare’s gruesome treatment of his Jewish characters in the play. 

The plot of this classic narrative follows the titular merchant Antonio who, in order to aid his friend Bassanio, takes a loan from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, with whom he had had an occasional exchange of invectives. They sign a bond that a failure to repay the loan in time will lead to Shylock cutting a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio, meanwhile, uses the money to participate in the lottery of caskets that Portia’s father had devised for her marriage. While Bassanio smoothly outdid the long queue of Portia’s suitors to marry her, Antonio’s fate refused to favour him. Antonio’s inability to repay the loan leads to the iconic trial scene. When the trial of the case was up in the Venetian court, Portia disguised herself as a male doctor of law and fought Antonio’s hopeless case. While Shylock was all set to cut a pound of the merchant’s flesh and had simply denied all pleas for mercy, Portia’s witty interpretation of the bond turned the tables — the bond clearly spoke of ‘a pound of flesh’ that Shylock shall get upon untimely return of his money, it did not speak of any blood. So, if Shylock would ‘shed one drop of Christian blood’, he would be subjected to punishment. Further, the court charged Shylock with attempts to seek the life of a Venetian citizen, under which his lands and goods were confiscated, and he was forcibly turned into a Christian — after which there’s no mention of Shylock in the play.

This convoluted plot with escalating tensions leading to the intense climax has continued to drive esteem from literary scholars and global audiences. However, all the applause cannot silence the echoes of prejudice and racial intolerance entrapped within the play. “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work,” stated the literary critic Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Not only literary brilliances like Bloom but even a naive eye cannot fail to spot these specks of discrimination scattered all over the play.

From the beginning of the play, the characters have perpetually referred Shylock as ‘the jew’, suggesting his religion outdoes his identity or as if he did not belong to a typical class of Venetian citizens. This reference ‘the Jew’ has, at times, been preceded by reproachful modifiers — ‘the currish Jew’, ‘the villain Jew’, ‘the dog Jew’ to name a few. Shylock lending money on interest is another reason he was subjected to hatred as it was considered an ‘unchristian’ way’; this further amplifies the notion of portraying Jews as greedy Christian killers. In the dramatic trial scene, Shylock was gratuitously forced to adopt Christianity. Besides, Shylock’s daughter, during the course of the play, who had eloped with Lorenzo, also turned into a Christian. Two of the significant Jewish characters converting into Christians by the end of the narrative in the guise of a happy ending exclaims out aloud Shakespeare’s religious biases.

The lack of ethical sensibility is not circumscribed to the mistreatment of Jews; it stretches further into other forms of discrimination. When Portia encounters one of her competent suitors, the Prince of Morocco, she bears bitterness towards him owing to his dark complexion. When the Prince of Morocco fails to choose the right casket in the lottery, Portia sighs in relief, saying, ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ – clearly symbolizing her disgust for dark colour, which was her mere metric for disregarding the Prince of Morocco.

At this juncture, the flagbearers of sacred Shakespearean literature might defend him, citing that Shakespeare’s intent was to depict the cruelty against the Jew in order to fetch them some sympathy. Yet the lack of explicitness in such depiction and absence of any Pro-Jewish forces combating all the injustice, slaughters to pieces any such counter-argumentation. Although it cannot be denied that the play sheds a dim light on Christian characters’ unjustified deeds, it does not balance out the severe brutalization of the Jews.

Shylock has undoubtedly managed to conquer a sympathetic corner in the hearts of his contemporary readers, but the peculiar language and word choice of the text suggest Shakespeare’s intentions as otherwise. The evident endorsement of prejudice, discrimination constituted upon race and colour, and justification of enforced religious conversion dargs the play’s usage as an academic substance, a mere recreation and even a centre of literary admiration into a huge interrogation — and demands us to contemplate on the complicatedness of the narrative, listening to the howls of its immoralities that reverberate even today. 

Suvrat Arora is a Junior at Thapar University pursuing Computer Engineering. An avid reader and hobbyist critique of literature, he reviews books under the name ‘bookish blurb’ and can frequently be found writing or editing for various society publications within the university.



One reply on “A Legacy of Prejudice, Persecution and Plight”

Interesting review. I agree with you that “The Merchant of Venice” is a problematic play today but I think it is going too far to claim that it represents Shakespeare’s personal beliefs. The dialogue in the play is spoken by characters, none of whom can be said to be the author’s mouthpieces. The ending (conversion to Christianity) is definitely not comedic and makes the play difficult to produce today.

Also, what are your thoughts on the “Hath Not a Jew Eyes?” speech?

Here’s something I wrote about this play some years ago:

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