Does Shakespeare exhibit prejudice in The Merchant of Venice?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to critics, although there is no way of knowing Shakespeare's intent in creating Shylock, there are various factors that enter into an assessment of the portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice:

  • There was antipathy toward Jews in England, even back to the time of Chaucer. The Jews had been expelled from England in 1290.
  • The Portugese Jew Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's physician, was hanged, drawn, and quartered after having been accused of plotting to poison the Queen. Thus,¬†Shakespeare may have been merely playing to the prevailing prejudices of his audience rather than his own.
  • According to Harold Bloom, Shylock is "a reaction formation or ironic swerve away from Marlowe's Jew of Malta." A fierce competitor of Marlowe, Shakespeare may have tried to outdo his rival with the character of Shylock rather than express personal prejudice.
  • Certainly, Shylock seems a despicable character; however, he is also a comic figure as he jabbers about his ducats and in his foolish desire for Antonio's flesh as well as the irony of his speeches to the Duke in Act IV:

I have possessed your grace of what I purpose
And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn
To have the due and forfeit of my bond" (4.1.34-36).

The irony here is that by asking to be given his "due", Shylock is figuratively asking the Duke to treat him with justice and not just award him his "bond."

Some men there are that love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others when the bagpipe sings I'th' nose
Cannot contain their urine" (4.1.46-49)

Ironically, here Shylock points again to himself as having needs inspired only by emotion, and, thus, accusing himself of irrationality.

Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic? It would seem that Shakespeare's feelings are as ambivalent as his play.