Probably the cause of writing was desire of Shakespeare’s troupe to stage a piece which would be a match for Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta staged in 1595-1596 by the Admiral’s People troupe. The plotline was taken over Italian short story where treacherous Jew threatens Merchant-Christian’s life. Thoroughly considered intrigue and unexpected denouement forestall the tragicomedies of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
As for the theme of the piece the audience has to comprehend it by itself. And let everyone solve the author’s puzzler to his discretion and within his mental faculties. I am not pretending to hit the mark I only try to give my version of interpreting of The Merchant of Venice, in particular the role of Shylock and his place in the general comprehension of the piece.
Central heroes of the play are Venetian usurer Shylock and rich merchant Antonio. They are ideological opponents: Shylock lends needy people at high interest, when Antonio give out his capital to friends unselfishly.
The Merchant of Venice, as all the other Shakespeare’s plays, is artistic interpretation of earlier material. In this case the source was Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta. If we compare these texts then Shakespeare’s Shylock will turn out a cherubic. Marlowe’s Jew appear before readers as a devil incarnate, he is doomed to death from the very outset and he realize it. His hatred against Christians was not motivated; he even had the courage to poison his own daughter – everything in order to take vengeance on “hated goyas”. Shylock is different – first of all he is a human being. Passion, subtle sense of honor, philoprogenitiveness and devotion to family ties are his nature. Daughter is his main wealth so much the worse his disappointment from her betrayal. Would not forget his faithful love to his deceased wife. All these features make Shylock attractive person.
According to, the opinion of many literary critics there are no more ardent words in defence of Shylock than those which he utters himself:
He hath disgraced me, and//hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,//mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. 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, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.
This monologue proves the identity of human nature irrespective of their religion and ethnic belongings.
Thus Shakespeare gave us the possibility to see the Jew not as the monster but as the personality – remarkable and tragic.
Shakespeare shows that the Jew, characterized only as the object of ridicule, mockery and offence in England of those times, could have rich and complex inner life. Other characters of the play were traced weaker.
One of his nature dominants is the love for his daughter Jessica that betrays him.
The whole plot of the piece present Shylock as a humble and destitute person who was deprived of everything except revenge. Humanity of Venetian laws does not extend over Shylock because he is a Jew.
Beg that thou mayst have leave to hang thyself:
And yet, thy wealth being forfeit to the state,
Thou hast not left the value of a cord;
Therefore thou must be hang’d at the state’s charge.
Triumphant evil always steps forth under the flag of truth, blessing, justice, salvation, wisdom, national idea, class idea or different great and bright idea.
That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it:
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s;
The other half comes to the general state,
You could rob him with impunity, stealing his daughter together with money. What is the bride for without money and jewels?
I must needs tell thee all. She hath directed
How I shall take her from her father’s house,
What gold and jewels she is furnish’d with,
What page’s suit she hath in readiness.
If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven,
It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake:
And never dare misfortune cross her foot,
Unless she do it under this excuse,
That she is issue to a faithless Jew.
For this robbery the Court is ready to oblige Shylock to bequeath all his property to the robber by way of charity:
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
In contrast to Shylock, that earn his living by lending filthy lucre at interest, though authorities at that time didn’t give him right of choice, Venetian aristocrats proclamed their disdain for money.
However in fact everyone was engaged in getting money, developing of his financial fortune. Money, wealth and property that is the real engagement of Venetians:
Shall I have the thought
To think on this, and shall I lack the thought
That such a thing bechanced would make me sad?
But tell not me; I know, Antonio
Is sad to think upon his merchandise.
Bassanio asks Antonio to help him to solve his financial problems:
I urge this childhood proof,
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again
And thankfully rest debtor for the first
In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues:
In this Venice to demand the flesh of debtor is a common thing. Antonio and his friends were not surprised at the idea of the pound of flesh, they were only indignant at the case that paltry Jew dare to make these terms.
However they hasten to the notary in order to attest a contract, evidently hoping to cheat the despicable Jew later on. In the Venetians minds were strongly ingrained double standards: principles and laws used for them could not concern Shylock.
Shakespeare unlike his predecessors accents on the fact that Shylock hated his Christian environment not causeless but because of permanent outrages upon his nation and religion. Probably it is a core of the whole act – protest against offence of human dignity. May be it is expressed by Shylock in radical form, but it is made in order to explaine that humiliation of the people, all kinds of mockery and offence could not be related to the merits. Though all the representatives of his characters of the play, except Shylock himself and his faithful Tubal, regard as their duty to stress their contempt and hatred to Shylock and to all the representatives of his tribe.
There is a «most honest» and praised by all Venetians Antonio:
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
They could not understand how he could grieve for dissappeared daughter:
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
High-flown words about fidelity, friendship, forgiveness and others that flew off the Venetians lips were so evident lie that they themselves didn’t try to make each other believe in their frankness. All the outpourings and assurances they murmur as vain formula of politeness, meanwhile fixing, estimating and breaking the price for the given benefits:
After Shylock’s “legal” robbery in the court:
Antonio, gratify this gentleman,
For, in my mind, you are much bound to him.
Their promises and oaths worth nothing:
I’ll see if I can get my husband’s ring,
Which I did make him swear to keep for ever.
[Aside to NERISSA] Thou mayst, I warrant.
Antonio will easy breake his principles, change laws for his good just if it corresponds his interests or be profitable for his friend:
Yet, to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I’ll break a custom.
Antonio behaves toward the usurer with disgust, Shylock hates the merchant for his foolishness and silly dissipation, he hates also all his company – of careless and light-hearted young Venetians. Shylock – the businessman, banker, he knows the price of time and money. He is satiated with aristocratic loafers, boasting of their destitute noble birth, pining him, who can buy all them, with the offensive word “Jew”. Business has no nationalities and just stupids don’t want to understand it.
Strange contract with Antonio on a pound of flesh from his body, in the case of dishonor is Shylock’s sophisticated revenge to his offenders, in a group. It seems that he himself has a weak belief in the possibility of realization of this barbaric bargain.
In the end of 20th century well-known specialist in study of literature Harold Bloom published his book Western Canon. He gathered there about twenty New European literati, from Shakespeare to Proust, he has tried to define why they have background significance for art and mentality. First among the equal in this book was Shakespeare, the cause of it lies in his talent to be everyone and no one. He can understand every idea, every act of spirit, to impress any passions and believes. But he never reveals his own philosophy.
He opens to his contemporaries the man’s inner world, which is the same as of aristocrat and as of despising Jew. Shakespeare displays new heroes – people that don’t believe other people and don’t believe any truths in general. These are the people that have made sure that the man is first of all treacherous creature, criminal, unfaithful, crafty, unreliable and dangerous. Any holy truth, any good intention and noble pursuit easy can become brutality, inhumanity and villainy in the hands of these new heroes.