Hath Not a Jew Mercy?

Essay by Anonymous UserUniversity, Master'sA-, January 1997

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Hath not a Jew Mercy?

Many of William Shakespeare's plays have sparked controversy. Probably the one that has sparked the most controversy is The Merchant of Venice, which many intellectuals have dubbed an anti-Semitic play. The character that this discussion centers around is Shylock, the rich moneylender Jew. The problem with most of these anti-Semitic arguments is that they lack the perspective of the sixteenth century audience. Throughout Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (M of V), the audience's perception of Shylock moves between utter hatred and varying amounts of pity. In contrast to today's audience, the original sixteenth century audience saw Shylock's religion as his biggest shortcoming.

Our first glimpse of Shylock's character comes in Act I, scene 3, where Shylock reveals to the audience why he hates Antonio. The first reason he gives of why he hates Antonio is because he is a Christian. (I. iii.

43) This to the sixteenth century audience would be unreasonable, and this would evoke a sort of villainy towards Shylock. But a few moments later, the audience witnesses Shylock's speech about Antonio's abuses towards Shylock. (I. iii. 107-130) This speech does well in invoking the audience's pity, however little it might be in the sixteenth century. But again at the end, Shylock offers that Antonio give up a pound of flesh as penalty of forfeiture of the bond, which Antonio sees as a joke, but which Shylock fully intends to collect. (I. iii. 144-78) This action negates any pity which Shylock would have one from the audience just a few moments before. Shakespeare, in this scene, uses Shylock's dialogue and soliloquies to push loyalties of the audience back and forth in a result of a negative view of Shylock.

In Act II, scene 8, Salarino...