Christianity and Judaism in The Merchant of Venice: Imperfect Faith

June 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

Though William Shakespeare accurately portrays both Christianity and Judaism in his play The Merchant of Venice, the characters in the play do not represent their religions well. A reader unfamiliar with these religions could easily misinterpret flaws in a character’s nature as the teachings of his religion. After a preliminary glance at the play, one would assume that Shakespeare wrote unjustly of the two religions depicted therein. However, Shakespeare had to write the play to please his audience, so he added a twist. By making characters not wholly perfect in their faith, in compliance with reality, Shakespeare was able to add the insults and bigotry and anti-Semitic feelings that would please the crowd, were true to society, and yet did not change the teachings of the religions themselves.Shakespeare does not change the principles of the two religions in this play. Even the characters in his play who do not always follow the teachings of their religions speak of these beliefs. In the courtroom scene, the Duke says to Shylock, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.” (IV, i, 35). He means he expects Shylock to show the mercy of a gentile, more specifically a Christian, who would show mercy to Antonio and waive the bond. In the very same scene, when the table turns and Antonio controls the fate of Shylock, Antonio releases the Jew. As for Judaism being portrayed correctly, throughout the play Shylock makes countless references to his religion. When Antonio and Shylock argue the exact teachings of the Bible concerning loans and collecting interest, Shylock refers the story of Jacob and Laban. Shylock also refers to the “holy Sabbath” in the courtroom. Shylock also tells Bassanio he will not eat with him, referring to the pigs that Jesus drove demons into. These, along with other actions of the Jew show Shakespeare did his best to keep Judaism unchanged for his play.Shakespeare still had to please the crowd with the insults and anti-Semitic feelings the people loved. He did this by adding flaws to the characters that they are now known for. Shakespeare gave Shylock his deep hatred for Antonio and all Christians, shown constantly by Shylock himself as he rants how Antonio constantly wrongs him. Another flaw in Shylock’s morals is seen in his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. There he believes he has the right for revenge when a Christian wrongs him, saying, “If a Jew wrongs a Christians, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.” (III, i, 63-66). Antonio too shows flaws, both through Shylock’s stories of Antonio’s persecution and through the insults he offers Shylock throughout the play. In the courtroom scene, Antonio tells Bassanio he might as well go stand on the beach and tell the waves to stop their endless beat upon the shores than try to get the Jew to change his mind. He also jokes that Shylock is turning into a Christian with his kindness to lend Antonio the 3,000 ducats, saying “The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.” (I, iii, 170). Not only does this add the necessary conflicts for humor that the audience wants, but it provides the backbone for the story, showing the background of the relationship between the Jew and the Christian. It makes it believable that Shylock would want to take the life of Antonio. Shakespeare ingeniously made this play tightly knit, fitting every piece of the puzzle together snuggly.Shakespeare added one final twist to the many already in his play. By adding Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and Lorenzo’s romance and the conversion of Jessica from Judaism to Christianity, Shakespeare created another plot from which the audience could get humor. With this plot he was also able to present a bit of dramatic irony. Shylock tells Jessica to lock the doors and windows so that she might not see the Christians parade through the streets. The audience knows however, that it will be the Christian Lorenzo that will come to Shylock’s house and take away his daughter. This whole situation clearly shows her noncompliance with Judaism. It offers humor for the audience and shows the flaws in her character, not for changing religion, but for the way in which she does it. She sneaks out of her father’s house, stealing thousands of ducats and jewels hidden in a casket, saying to Lorenzo, “Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.” (II, vi, 34).William Shakespeare’s work The Merchant of Venice shows the intellectual power behind his writings. Shakespeare interwove many plots perfectly to please the audience, offer a deeper look at the conflict concerning Shylock, and still respect the religions he used. His characters, the players of this story, contained the flaws which served as the basis for the play. It was not Christianity or Judaism which caused the conflict. In fact, if every character in The Merchant of Venice had been true to his religion, there would be no conflict to write of at all. It is because of works like these that Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers of all time.

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