The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan period. It is set in Venice, situated in the northeast of Italy, in the 15th century. The play is primarily looking at the treatment of the Jewish nation in Venice but also the great conflicts between Christians and Jews. The attitude differences between an Elizabethan audience to the modern-day viewpoint also brings further depth to the play when viewing it now.
Primarily the play is about two characters; Antonio, a prosperous and popular Christian merchant who has many friends and is dearly loved, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who earns his wealth through charging usance on loans.
In the first scene of the play, we see Antonio as a generous, wealthy, popular, loved Christian merchant. Bassanio is his closest friend who owes Antonio money. However, because of how generous Antonio is he is still willing to lend money to Bassanio, which he needs to win the hand in marriage of fair Portia; this actually breaks Antonio’s heart because of how he loves his best friend. Antonio, however, doesn’t have the ready capital at that time to loan Bassanio because all of his capital is tied up in merchant ships at sea, but he is willing to allow Bassanio to take out a loan from a moneylender in his name.
Even in this opening scene we see the warmth and kindness of Antonio, the way he is willing to seriously put himself out for his friend shows the ‘Christian’ love within him.
Our opening introduction to the character of Shylock builds us a very graphic im...
pression of him.
In the opening lines of the conversation between Shylock and Bassanio, Shylock seems to be seriously considering the pros and cons of the loan and ‘weighing up’ his options. However, this may not be the case as quite simply he could be stalling to allow himself time to scheme – to calculate how to get the best for himself out of Antonio. Here Shylock could be either calculating the figures of the loan in his mind or being callous to gain a chance to get revenge on Christians.
Bassanio is very suspicious of Shylock’s sincerity. The way, in which, he describes Antonio as being “sufficient” can either be taken, as Antonio himself, or the capital he has to his name. Of this Bassanio cannot decide which is the case. Shylock is very knowledgeable of Antonio and greatly annoys Bassanio with talking about Antonio’s ships; afterall, as Bassanio sees it, what is the need for that part of the conversation. There is a great play on the words ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ and ‘assured’ here and it is unclear what Shylock truly means a great deal of the time.
The response from Shylock when Bassanio presents the offer of dining with himself and Antonio is very powerful and emotional; the deep hatred of Christians and Christianity is very clear in this passage.
When Antonio enters, in the aside of Shylock, we see the true feelings of him towards Antonio.
“How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian; -” Here we are steered directly towards
the view of him being a villain. The reason for this is that what he says is in an ‘aside’ to the audience and an aside is always genuine; because of this reason, there is a great deal of weight behind the words of Shylock. The way Shylock makes the snide comment about Antonio’s appearance shows that his hatred for him is so deep that he even hates the way he looks.
However, is this attitude in the aside due to the poor treatment Shylock has had to go through from Antonio and other Christians due to him being a Jew? Also, the way in which Shylock says in the aside, “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him -” adds weight to the villainous viewpoint of the aside because this line is showing what he feels, and what he would like to do. Even at this early stage is Shylock already planning to ‘get his hands on Antonio’? The conflicts between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward lending money could also fuel the anger of Shylock toward Antonio; how Shylock’s business is harmed because the rate of ‘usance’ has lowered in the Rialto because of Christians, such as Antonio, lending money ‘gratis’.
One important point to do with the loan is that Shylock himself doesn’t even have the necessary money to loan Bassanio but is willing to borrow money from Tubal, another Jew, to then give to Bassanio. The question is, though, why would Shylock put himself out this much; is it because of how badly he wants revenge on Antonio or is it because he wants to try to raise his name with the people of the Rialto by aiding a popular, needy Christian.
Many of the things that Shylock says to Antonio and Bassanio come across as very pleasant and courteous. However, with what Shylock has told us in the aside, this is not the truth that he is telling them. Also, the way Shylock supposedly needs time for calculation on the loan is suspicious; is it the case that he is actually holding out because he has Antonio at a disadvantage and so is making him suffer and feel uncomfortable? After all, he has quite a right to make them suffer as he, being a Jew, is used to suffering at the hands of Christians continually. Shakespeare here could be beginning to challenge the treatment of Jews, which at the time it was first performed, the Elizabethan period, would have had a great impact on how people would react.
In Shylock’s last passage of the scene we are brought to see the pain and suffering that he goes through on a daily basis, at the hands of Antonio and other Christians. We understand the views of Christians towards Shylock with how they judge and criticise him and other Jews. The way in which Shylock recalls how he has borne Antonio rating him in the Rialto with “a patient shrug” because he says:
“-for suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe; -” This poses one question; is it what Jews deserve?
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