What is the Christian and Jewish element in The Merchant of Venice, particularly in the fights between Antonio and Shylock?
Antonio and Shylock dislike one another partly because of their beliefs. Shylock accuses Antonio of sanctimony, stating that he hates “him for he is a Christian.” Antonio’s “Christian” spirit leads him to give money without charging interest, undercutting Shylock’s business. As a Jew in Venice, one of the few ways to make money was through usury. Shylock does not have the same rights as the Christians in Venice, for the law considers him an alien and Antonio a citizen.
Antonio despises Shylock’s duplicity, his way of life as a moneylender, and apparently his religion. Shylock says Antonio calls him “misbeliever, cut-throat dog,” spits on him, and kicks him. He even publicly denounces Shylock’s business. Antonio also demonstrates hypocrisy by asking Shylock for money on behalf of his friend Antonio.
When Shylock seeks revenge against Antonio, he notes further hypocrisy in Christians who claim to be merciful. He observes, “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.” Shylock also points out that these Christians have “many a purchased slave” which they treat as their own property. Why should he forgive Antonio when Christians do not demonstrate the mercy they espouse?
In the trial, Antonio and the Duke attempt to show Shylock “the difference of our spirits” by pardoning his life and letting him keep half of his wealth. The gesture certainly has religious undertones, for Antonio refers to Shylock’s hard “Jewish heart” and forces him to convert to Christianity. Still, in order to teach Shylock a lesson, Portia does not grant him Christian mercy, initially insisting that Shylock “have merely justice and his bond.” It is the law or nothing else.
Religion in The Merchant of Venice is a very complicated subject. It brings up questions of identity, antisemitism, and true compassion.