The Merchant of Venice

William (Billy) Shakespeare has a considerable roster of famous plays to his name, notable among them is The Merchant of Venice, which in the modern day is mostly known for its portrayal and treatment of the character Shylock, the only important Jewish character in the play (unless you count Jessica), and also its main antagonist. However, there’s much more depth to this play beneath what made it infamous, and certainly warrants exploration.

To first address the elephant in the room, almost everything about Shylock is extremely fascinating to examine. First and foremost, Shylock’s religion is not incidental to his actions (His Jewishness is not just a random character trait added to make him extra detestable for the audience of the time), nor is it the direct cause of them (He doesn’t want to kill Antonio because “he’s Jewish and that’s just what Jewish people do”). Instead, Shylock is pushed to breaking by the actions of others, mostly the constant discrimination from the titular merchant of Venice, Antonio. This combined with his famous monologue, in which he berates to minor characters for refusing to acknowledge his very humanity solely because of his religion. This is easily the most powerful scene in the play (at least to a modern audience), and its inclusion makes Shylock a much more sympathetic character to a degree that I doubt it could have happened by accident. Ultimately, this leads to his actions throughout the play being extremely understandable, although whether or not he was justified is another debate entirely. If the reader so chooses, this play can be interpreted as an examination of the horrible effects of prejudice on society as a whole.

While the subtext surrounding Shylock is extremely interesting, the character Antonio is almost equally so. His narrative role is that of the protagonist, but it feels like he appears much less frequently than most of the main cast, mostly because of his lack of influence on the story. His most frequently discussed trait is his blatant antisemitism, but like Shylock, his negative qualities are not his only qualities. His genuine love for his friends is his primary motivation for the entirety of the story, which would normally be considered an undisputed virtue. However, the extreme selectiveness of this trait is his main flaw. His  affection towards his friends comes at the cost of his affection towards everyone else. Just like his supposed antithesis, Antonio is a much more complex character than he first appears.

The interpretation of this play as an examination and deconstruction of prejudice and antisemitism is reinforced by the fact that almost every character is a colossal hypocrite. Throughout the play, there are frequent examples of characters making statements that directly contradict with their previous or later actions (Bassanio giving away his wedding ring the day after he said he’d never part from it, Antonio going to Shylock for money after years of abusing him, the Venetian court sentencing Shylock to essentially a life of exile from his own culture with only half of his possessions immediately after pleading he be merciful to Antonio). This subtle bit of thematic storytelling adds a lot of nuance to the narrative, presenting the supposed antagonist in a more positive light that the title character. This likely would have gone completely over the head of the contemporary London audience, so whether it was intended by the playwright is difficult to verify. However, our removal of several centuries from the play’s debut allows us to look at it from a much more objective angle.

4 thoughts on “The Merchant of Venice”

  1. Hi Ben, your analysis on Antonio and Shylock were really spot on! You have provided the small little details and how their decision have shaped their personality, making your view of them seems very credible. To add on, I would love if you can talk more about how Shylock and Antonio interact with each other that has created a great dynamic in this play and what we learn from them.

  2. Ben, I really like how you analyzed Antonio and Shylock and their relationship in the play. I agree with you that Shylock is not doing things because he is Jewish, but is rather compelled to due them as a cause of the discrimination against him due to his religion. This is a well thought out analysis, good job.

  3. Great job Ben. I really liked the way that you discussed shylock , especially in relation to his religion and actions. Agree with what you said about all the characters being “colossal hypocrites’ ‘, because no one in this play is good or bad, and I think that this makes them represent humanity accurately and the nature of human beings because we cannot be perfect. I also really liked the way you stated specific examples supporting everything you said. I think this really added quality to your strong points.

  4. Nice job Ben, you really made a good personal response as always. You made it very conversationalist so it was interesting to read. I wasn’t sure if you meant to use the word “Infamous” or “famous” because the latter seemed to fit in better. Overall good writing, it was clear and personal.

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