From William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1, explain the lines "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? . . .What should his sufferance be by Christian...

From William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1, explain the lines "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? . . .What should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish character of Shylock is a bitter, angry and vengeful money-lender whose arrangement with Antonio, who was acting on Bassanio’s behalf, to exact a pound of flesh should Antonio fail to repay his debt, propels much of the play’s narrative.  While the machinations involving desire of Bassanio to wed the beautiful young but wealthy Portia is the motivating factor that precipitated the arrangement between Shylock and Antonio to begin with, it is the treatment and continued denigration of the Jew that provides the central theme of this particular act.  Gravely compounding the tension emanating from Shylock’s determination to exact his revenge on mankind for its treatment of him is the fact that his daughter, Jessica, has eloped with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio.  Encountering the Venetian gentlemen Salanio and Salarino, Shylock bitterly laments his daughter’s action: “My own flesh and blood to rebel!”

It is no accident that Shakespeare has Shylock employ that precise phrase – “flesh and blood” – because the issue of human flesh, how it is judged and valued, is a major theme of The Merchant of Venice.  In the exchange that follows, Salarino and Salanio discount Shylock’s angst of his daughter’s betrayal, injecting the tone of racism into the encounter:

SHYLOCK

I say, my daughter is my flesh and blood.

SALARINO

There is more difference between thy flesh and hers
than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods
than there is between red wine and rhenish. But
tell us, do you hear whether Antonio have had any
loss at sea or no?

Salarino has now broached the issue of Antonio’s fortunes turning sour, the ship carrying his cargo having crashed on rocks at sea, rendering him unable to repay his debt to Shylock with the maritime disaster’s obvious ramifications for Antonio’s physical well-being.  It is now where Shylock gives his impassioned speech regarding the racism that has condemned him to a life of ingratitude and emotional abuse at the hands of those around him.  Salarino inquires of Shylock what good will come of Antonio’s death and what use can be made of this figurative ‘pound of flesh,’ prompting the Jewish money-lender’s anguished plea for acceptance:

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. 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. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

Shylock is unloading on those who taunt and abuse him for the sin of being a Jew in deeply Catholic Italy.  He is attacking the racism perpetually directed against him by virtue of his religion and emphasizing that, Jew or not, he is a human who consists of flesh and blood and who, if pushed into a corner, will fight back.  He is a product of his environment, and the Christians who today plea for his mercy are merely experiencing the consequences of the bigotry they exhibited yesterday.

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