The Merchant of Venice The Merchant of Venice (Vol. 53)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merchant of Venice

Sometimes listed among Shakespeare's “problem plays” because of its ambiguous treatment of issues such as religion, economics, and the role of women, The Merchant of Venice has also been a source of heated critical disagreement with regard to race. In this light, scholars have discussed not only Shakespeare's ambivalent depiction of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, but also his derogatory presentation of minor, non-European characters such as the Prince of Morocco. Critics have debated whether this racial tension is evidence of Shakespeare's own opinions. Alternatively, some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare might have relied on his racially charged scenes to create an allegorical drama or to satirize and thereby condemn his own culture's prejudices.

Although Thomas Moisan (1987) and Stephen A. Cohen (1994) do not deal specifically with the issue of race, both critics see the character Shylock as a social outsider. Both also credit Shakespeare with using Shylock to subtly criticize his era and his fellow Europeans in their treatment of non-Europeans. Moisan, for example, argues that the play pokes fun at a European, Christian society that condemns the economics of usury even while it depends on its practice. Cohen, on the other hand, identifies Shylock as a lone and unsuccessful defender of equity and social freedoms against “royal authority”—an issue that would become increasingly important in England as the days of monarchical rule came to a close and the period of Cromwell's Commonwealth approached.

Marion D. Perret (1988) touches upon racial questions in The Merchant of Venice when he remarks that Shylock's race would have been irrelevant to Shakespeare's audience, who, he contends, would have been more concerned with the moneylender's business and religious practices. By contrast, John Picker (1994), Avraham Oz (1995), and James Shapiro (1995) all see race as a crucial issue in the play. Each stresses Europe's (and more specifically England's) fear of the outsider or non-European as a factor in the way in which Shylock is treated—first by Antonio, and later by Portia and the Duke of Venice in the trial scene. Oz observes that the treatment of Jews by European cities was, in fact, a means of enforcing power over all outsiders as well as over all Europeans who were subordinate to the local authority. Oz asserts that Shylock's bargain with Antonio represents an attempt to reverse the relationship between those who have power and those who do not. Shapiro looks at the play from a slightly different point of view: in his examination of British performances of The Merchant of Venice over the centuries, he observes that audiences and directors have struggled to accommodate Jews, whom they regard as a threatening, non-English race which is nevertheless of great economic importance. Mary Janell Metzger (1998) refers to color as a distinguishing factor for race in the play. Metzger notes the frequency with which Jessica is described as white-skinned and therefore noble in contrast to her father, Shylock, who is dark-skinned and untrustworthy. Jessica, Metzger argues, is white enough to be regarded by some of the characters as a “latent Christian”—thus “racializing” the conception of what it is to be Jewish. Kim F. Hall (1992) and B. J. Sokol (1998) discuss the treatment of other races in the play. Hall examines a brief reference in Act III to a “Moor,” or black, woman whom Lorenzo claims has been impregnated by Launcelot. These few lines, Hall asserts, highlight the English nation's preoccupation with preserving its identity and power as a race—an issue that was of much concern to Elizabethan England, deeply involved as it was at the time in colonization and commerce overseas. Sokol acknowledges the fact that such prejudice against other races and colors was legally condoned in England, but he also argues that Shakespeare employs language and characterization to reveal the Elizabethan public's...

(The entire section is 114,156 words.)