The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is often identified by modern critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," in that it raises moral dilemmas it does not resolve. The major problematic areas that are frequently the focus of critical debate include the discrepancy between the values professed by Christians in the play and their own apparently contradictory actions, the conflict between male friendship and marriage, and the issue of Shakespeare's arguably anti-Semitic portrayal of Shylock. In addition to these unresolved issues, there is much criticism that focuses on other aspects of the play—such as the issue of gender identity and the language of economics and exchange that permeates the play.

By the end of the play, the Jewish money-lender Shylock has been stripped of his possessions and the right to practice his religion, while the Christian charactersAntonio, Bassanio, and Portia—have lost nothing, and have in fact gained money and love. Despite this favorable outcome for the Christians, they are often accused of failing to practice Christian mercy, among other professed beliefs. Many critics have suggested that the actions of the Christians—the way they speak about and to Shylock, and the way they treat him—speak self-condemingly for themselves. Other critics have argued that Christian virtues are emphasized in the play. Raymond B. Waddington (1977), for example, contrasted the actions of Portia and Bassanio on behalf of each other and Antonio with the actions of Jessica and Lorenzo to maintain that the Christian values of trust and faith are stressed in the play. Waddington also suggests ways in which Antonio's actions toward Shylock might be regarded as merciful. Similarly, Leo Kirschbaum (1962) has asserted that the Christian virtue of faith in Providence is demonstrated through the character of Antonio and the risks he takes.

Other critics have opted for another religious approach to the play, examining Shakespeare's stance on Judaism rather than Christianity. Like many scholars, Kirschbaum seeks to understand what the terms "Jew" and "Christian" meant to Elizabethan audiences. Kirschbaum and others have pointed out that there were no Jewish communities in England in Shakespeare's time, and that the playwright's attitude toward Jews was based on the stereotypical Jewish figure as portrayed in earlier works; this figure served primarily as an anti-Christian scapegoat. Kirschbaum further argues that Shakespeare's Shylock resembles the Elizabethan Puritan, in that the Puritan was often stereotyped as a sober, economically aggressive kill-joy—a projection of Anglican hatred for traits which were contradictory to conventional sensibilities. D. M. Cohen (1980) on the other hand, has argued that the play is indeed anti-Semitic, and not simply in the portrayal of Shylock. Cohen cites the number of times and ways in which the term "Jew" is used in the play and maintains that Jewishness is equated with wickedness. Furthermore, Cohen states, Jews are characterized as inhuman throughout the play until the end, where Shakespeare demonstrates Shylock's humanity. Cohen finds this particularly troubling, asking that if Shakespeare believed that Jews were humans with their own strengths and weakness, why then would he indulge the use of the stereotypical inhuman, evil Jew throughout the play? Finally, other critics have examined the character of Shylock from a different angle entirely. James Shapiro (1996) focused his analysis on Shylock's threat to remove a "pound of flesh" from Antonio. Shapiro suggests that Elizabethans understood this threat to be one of circumcision and examines the implications of this threat to a Christian audience in Elizabethan England.

Another area of interest to scholars is the play's language of exchange, economics, and finance. Lars Engle (1986) explored the use of such language and notes that all the relationships in the play are characterized in some way as economic or legal, not...

(The entire section is 97,389 words.)