The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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Does Shylock actually convert to Christianity?

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The question of conversion from Judaism to Christianity primarily concerns Jessica for most of the play. Her love for a Christian man will not end in marriage if she remains a Jew. The practice of enforced conversion was widespread in Europe at the time, while some Jews and Muslims did convert voluntarily. The battle for the soul and the choice of the individual heart go hand in hand.

In Shylock's case, he has expressed no interest in abandoning his own faith. Although his daughter treats him unkindly, he shows concern for her welfare as he agrees that she and her husband will inherit together. Because Christian faith was a requisite for many positions, Jews were often faced with this dilemma.

As Shylock is an experienced man, used to his minority status and related discrimination, and knows of his daughter's desires, it probably was no surprise that the trial would end in judgment against him. He may have been anticipating his next step when he spoke of revenge in act 3, scene 1:

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! The villainy you

teach me I will execute . . . .

Thus by the time Portia "asks" him to accept the court's imposition (act 4, scene 1), he does not actually say he will convert. He simply states, "I am content" but also "I am not well. Send the deed after me . . . ." Bear in mind that his money will go to Jessica as inheritance. Shylock may well be biding his time. The baptism does not figure in the play's action, so we cannot say for sure what his next step will be.

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Toward the end of the trial scene (Act IV, scene i.), Antonio's exoneration would seem to bring the play's main plot to its final resolution, but Portia extends the proceedings by commanding "Tarry Jew." Still in her lawyer's disguise, Portia first asserts that the statutes of Venice call for the execution of false accusers and the confiscation of the worldly goods. Antonio displays Christian mercy by suggesting that Shylock be spared and allowed to keep half his wealth on two conditions: that Shylock arrange for Jessica and Lorenzo to inherit his worldly goods upon his death and that he convert to Christianity. Confronted with these hard choices and prompted by Portia's "What say?" Shylock replies "I am content" (IV, i., l.393). Yet we do not see the usurer's conversion, and no further mention is made of it. Instead, Shylock claims to be ill and assures his judges that he will sign a new will if they send it after him. In light of all this, we must question not just the sincerity, but the validity of Shylock's conversion to Christianity.

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