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Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

“Jewishness” in the play
Traditionally, the attitude of British to Jews was quite negative and works of many writers and poets, including Shakespeare, illustrate the negative attitude of English people to Jews. Basically, the relationships between representatives of English and Jewish peoples were tense, if not to say hostile, but, what was even more important, was the fact that Jewish were severely oppressed and, as a rule, they were treated as a second-class citizens. It should be said that one of the most famous works by William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice may be viewed as one of the woks that reveals the extent to which the attitude of Englishmen to Jews was biased and unjust. In fact, it is possible to speak about the obvious discrimination of Jews and emphasizing the superiority of Englishmen in relation to this ethnic group.
On analyzing The Merchant of Venice, it is possible to refer to its title in order to better understand the attitude of English people to Jews and the relationship that existed between these peoples. In fact, it is estimated that the subtitle or another title of the play was The Jew of Venice, while the existing and known title The Merchant of Venice may be viewed as more tolerant, but still revealing the essence of the attitude of English people to Jews. To put it more precisely, traditionally, and the play proves this fact, Jewish people were viewed as successful merchants, which, though, could hardly be characterized as honest or noble people. In stark contrast, Englishmen viewed them as the absolute opposite to their national ideal of a virtuous and noble man.
Primarily, it is necessary to underline that in the epoch of Shakespeare, merchants were a lower class of society compared to nobility. Practically, this means that English aristocrats, noblemen were the superior layer of society, the superior caste which dominated over all the others, while Jews being rich and successful in their trade were deceitful, mercantile, dishonest men that had nothing in common with a real English nobleman.
At the same time, it is necessary to underline that it was not only personal qualities and social status that distinguishes Jews from an English nobleman. In fact, Shakespeare emphasizes in his play that one of the most arguable subjects which actually made Jews outcasts in England as well as in Europe at large was their religious beliefs. It is not a secret that in Europe where dominated Christianity, namely Catholicism, Judaism was absolutely rejected as a true religion. In stark contrast, religious beliefs of Jews were considered to be inferior in comparison to religious views and beliefs of English people.
No wonder, in such a situation, the author views conversion into Christianity as the great virtue and benefit for Jewish people. In such a context, it is possible to estimate that the forced conversion of Shylock into Christianity was probably viewed by William Shakespeare as a sort of happy ending for the character because it was a kind of enlightenment and inclusion of Shylock to the higher caste of Christian who are perceived as superior to Jews. At the same time, such a conversion is a kind of rescue of Shylock’s soul from his impure thoughts to kill Antonio.
Thus, it is possible to estimate that Jews, being treated as second-class citizens, could find salvation from themselves through the conversion into Christianity, which could rise them at the upper level of spirituality.


Attitudes to Jews and Christian mercifulness
In general, the play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare perfectly reveals the attitude dominating in the Elizabethan England to Jews, especially in the field of religion. Basically, Jews were viewed as absolutely unable to perceive the same values and views as Englishmen or Christians. As a result, they were treated as second-class citizens
In fact, Shakespeare emphasizes that the attitude to Jews was extremely biased and in such a situation the repulsion of Shylock, which was treated as a villain, seems to be quite natural since he perceives himself as equal to any other man, believing that he is as human as any other person. This is why he argues:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
Dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
The same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
To the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
Warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer
As Christian is? (Shakespeare, 1994)
In this respect, it is necessary to point out the fact that such an important aspect of Christian religion as mercifulness is considered by non-Jewish characters of the play, as well as by English people in the epoch of Shakespeare, absolutely incomprehensible to Jews.
In fact, the entire structure of the play implies that Shakespeare attempted to contrast the mercy of the main Christian characters, which is considered to be one of the main Christian virtues, with the vengefulness of a Jew, who, according to Shakespeare, lacks the religious grace to comprehend mercy. In such a way, the religious views of Jewish people seem to be primitive and absolutely inferior compared to the religious views of the main Christian characters of the play. This is why it is possible to estimate that Shakespeare supported Christianity as dominant religion and rejected Jewish religious beliefs.
At the same time, it is necessary to underline that the traditional Christian mercifulness is often opposed in the play to Jewish revengefulness. But, in actuality, Christians prove to be not more merciful and not less revengeful than the Jew. This is why he emphasizes:
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
Sufferings be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(Shakespeare, 1994).
In such a way, it is Christians who prove to be the source of revenge of the Jew and mercifulness is not such a characteristic of Christians as it is considered to be.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that the attitude of Englishmen to Jews were biased but the Christian virtues and Jewish sins actually do not depend on their ethnicity or religious beliefs as Shakespeare shows.


References
Shakespeare, W. (1994). The Merchant of Venice. New York:
Penguin Classics.


 
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