One cannot read Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice without realizing the significance that religion takes in the play, specifically the portrayal of the Jewish and Christian characters. When we first encounter the play's principal Jew, Shylock, we can only feel resentment towards him for the way he carries himself and conducts his business. Then, when first exposed to the play's principal Christian characters--Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia--the audience likely feels sympathetic towards them because of their unfortunate run-ins with the villainous Shylock. But I wonder if this is a truly accurate reading of the play. It appears that critics are divided on whether Shakespeare was further advancing anti-Semitism existent at the time by depicting Shylock in denigrating stereotypes throughout the play or whether he was actually condemning anti-Semitic behavior by turning Shylock into a sympathetic figure by the play's end. It is my contention that Shakespeare is merely reflecting societal norms at the time as he indicts religion altogether.
Though we cannot forget Shylock's appeal to humanity in his "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, nor Portia's appeal for mercy at the court trial, there is far too much evidence of misdeeds and hypocrisy by all of these characters to think Shakespeare is "picking sides" in this battle of religions. Shylock's greed and need for revenge are certainly damning portrayals of his faith given how religious he claims to be. But given the "holier-than-thou" attitude's of Venice's Christians and their hypocritical actions to the contrary of their religion, it is clear to me Shakespeare has a major problem with Christians who "talk the talk" but do not "walk the walk." I will discuss the villainous representation of Shylock, then analyze the hypocrisy of the play's primary Christian characters and will question if these Christians embody the righteous example of which they speak.
The portrayal of Shylock is paramount throughout the play, mainly because we are torn between disliking him for his cruelty on one hand and empathizing with him because of the abuse he suffers on the other. When Shylock enters the play in the Act 1, Bassanio is trying to get a loan from him using Antonio's credit because he needs a large sum of money so he can appropriately woo Portia. There is certainly no denying Shylock's passion for accumulating wealth. The other characters frequently comment on Shylock's greed throughout the play, and he even tells his daughter that he dreams about moneybags. Shylock suffers ridicule from the Christian community because he charges high interest rates on loans, but also because he is a Jew, comparable to a dog or the devil in their eyes. As Shylock considers the loan, he seems more interested in having Antonio bound to him than with the loan itself, and we soon learn of Antonio and Shylock's mutual resentment. Shylock is hesitant to help Antonio out because Antonio has hurt his own business dealings in the past by lending money at no charge, but also because he is a Christian. The evidence of Shylock's greed continues to mount. In Act 2, Solanio describes "the dog Jew" running through the streets of Venice and crying more earnestly for his lost ducats than for his lost daughter (who has ended their relationship, married a Christian and converted to Christianity, further enraging her estranged father).
Beginning in Act 3 and continuing into the first parts of Act 4, Shylock repeats statements like "I will have my bond"--the dubious "pound of flesh" from Antonio's body. Shylock's repetitions of his claim turn into a death chant of sorts for Antonio since he is now unable repay the loan. When asked what he plans to do with Antonio's piece of flesh since it's obviously worthless to him Shylock replies, "To bait fish withal...if it will feed nothing else it will feed my revenge" (Act 3, Scene 1, lines 45-46). We can now see Shylock eagerly awaiting his chance to kill Antonio and get his symbolic revenge on all the town's Christians, whom he despises.
Despite Portia's famed speech at the dramatic trial in Act 4, in which she lectures about Christian goodness and "the quality of mercy," Shylock refuses to show Antonio mercy. He claims he "craves the law" (Scene 1, line 203) and will not be merciful and forgiving to Antonio, and no one can change his mind. All of these incidents are constant reinforcements of Shylock's bitterness and cold-heartedness, which has been shown throughout the play, and which are clearly not in line with the virtuous nature of Judaism.
Of course we know that there is an unexpected change of events about to happen to Shylock. Instead of having his bond, we find that Shylock's bond with Antonio is impossible to recover since he may not shed a drop of Antonio's Christian blood in the process. Portia then orders Shylock's property seized and "mercifully" allows him to convert to Christianity rather being executed for attempting to take the life of a fellow Venetian, seemingly "delivering" him from his Jewishness. But up until Shylock's sentencing, we might be somewhat content with the depictions of the evil Jew and the righteous Christians. But as we examine Act 4 (and the entire play) more closely, we are forced to recognize that perhaps Shylock is actually a victim of the hypocritical Christian society in which he lives. Being able to read this play in a post-Holocaust and post-Civil Rights Movement world, we cannot help but have some empathy towards Shylock for the way he is treated, though clearly he is not a very virtuous man in his own right.
To analyze Christian hypocrisy in this play, it is necessary to go back to Portia's dramatic speech given at the trial, discussed previously. Portia preaches about the blessings of showing mercy, almost playing the role of a preacher. But if we retrace her steps back to Act 1, we hear Portia confessing to Christian hypocrisy. "Portia alludes to the familiar commonplace of the breach between Christian precept and practice" (Hassel, 117). This assertion comes from the following passage spoken by Portia:
"If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easier teach twenty that were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching" (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 11-15).
The primary Christian characters of this play are representative of the people living at the time. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, has a great reputation among his fellow Christians who see him as a righteous and self-sacrificing citizen and friend. His bigotry towards Jews is not frowned upon because all of the others share his belief. Behind Shylock's back, Antonio ridicules him as a moneylender, but then enters into a loan agreement with him anyway. Antonio shows no mercy to Shylock when Portia pronounces his sentence. If Antonio were a genuine Christian, would he not have humbly accepted his acquittal then tried to reconcile his differences with Shylock? Instead, Antonio agrees to take half of Shylock's possessions without objection, thus eliminating his main business rival. These actions (along with Antonio's berating of Shylock) are not of Christian compassion and mercy but of selfishness and religious hypocrisy.
Now I briefly turn to Bassanio. Bassanio is portrayed as a bit of a playboy--squandering all he has, refusing to work and willing to beg for financial assistance. He is more than willing to marry Portia for financial gain. He certainly has a tendency toward materialism and consumption, which are not Christian values. Although Bassanio does not really victimize Shylock in the same way the others do, his lifestyle does tarnish the religious credibility of the Christian community.
Now I turn to Portia, who embodies this hypocritical Christian nature and does not practice what she preaches. We are clued in to her racism as she complains about one of her suitors for marriage, the dark-skinned Prince from Morocco. Portia makes the comment "If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me" (Act 1, Scene 2, line 33). "Portia knows it is a sin to be a mocker, but she mocks her suitors anyway" (Hassel, 114). Portia instead settles for the gold-digging Bassanio.
Although Portia's "quality of mercy" speech sounds like a wonderful description of Christian values, it is really an ironic display of Christian talking points versus actual practice. As I mentioned earlier, Portia's words do not correlate with her deeds. She tricks Shylock in this scene, first by disguising her character, then by turning the perceived law against him, leaving him a shell of his former self while enriching her friends. Shylock's life is completely ruined and she makes an even bigger mockery of his religion. Portia appears spiteful, not compassionate, and certainly does not come off as a merciful Christian.
Though Shakespeare is a tough read for me, I think I finally came to an understanding about what this play was really trying to convey. At first glance, you find yourself hating Shylock and admiring Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Later, you find yourself empathizing with Shylock because of the hypocrisy of the Christian characters. While the critics have argued it both ways, I truly feel that Shakespeare is merely commenting on society as he then saw it, which turns out to be a strong indictment of both religions--or at least how their virtues are carried out by their followers.