The Merchant of Venice

Take a stroll with us through the shady back alleys of Venice. If you were looking for a relaxing ride through the gondola canals...well, wrong travel guide.

AuthorShakespeare - William Shakespeare
British LiteratureShakespeare
FormPlay
LanguageEnglish Language
LiteratureBritish Literature
Shakespeare
ThemesChoices
Friendship
Isolation
Justice and Judgement
Love
Marriage
Race
Wealth

Transcript

00:24

character of Shylock.

00:27

This guy is mean...

00:28

Greedy...

00:29

Vengeful....

00:30

And in a lot of ways fits every stereotype that the people of Shakespeare’s day believed

00:33

about Jews. What is the Merchant of Venice really trying

00:37

to say about Jewish people?

00:39

Is it possible that the play is promoting the anti-Semitic attitude of its time?

00:43

We can definitely see how it’d be easy to be anti-Semitic in 16th century England. [1]

00:45

Most Jewish people had been given the boot way back in the 13th century...

00:53

…so all the English had to go on in Shakespeare’s time were popular stories that made Jews out

01:00

to be diabolic super-villains.

01:02

These stories even claimed that Jews stole Christian children on Easter to use the blood

01:06

for Passover rituals.

01:08

Some have said that the pound of flesh Shylock demands from Antonio is a reference to these

01:13

blood-rituals…

01:13

…and that the play is reinforcing these out-of-control stereotypes.

01:17

Of course, others will tell you that the play is actually criticizing the prejudices of

01:22

its time.

01:23

Shylock’s famous speech in which he asks… if you prick us do we not bleed?... insists

01:29

that Jews and Christians share a common humanity.

01:32

The fact that Shylock says all this even though he's been spit upon, kicked, and railed against

01:37

for being different…

01:38

…could show that he’s more than a negative Jewish stereotype.

01:42

So it might be that the play is way ahead of its time in its portrayal of Jewish people,

01:46

right? Another possibility, though, is that the play

01:49

isn’t taking any stance at all.

01:51

It’s just dramatizing exactly the kind of stuff that was going down in its time.

01:55

Shakespeare may have written a character like Antonio, who spews tons of terrible things

01:59

about Jews, because...

02:00

…well...there were tons of people going around doing just that.

02:03

The end of the play, where Shylock is stripped of a lot of his wealth and forced to convert

02:08

to Christianity…

02:08

…might not be saying that this is the way things ought to be.

02:12

Instead, it could just be showing the way things are.

02:14

So what do you think?

02:17

What is the Merchant of Venice trying to say about the Jews?

02:20

Is it promoting the anti-Semitic attitude of its time?

02:23

Is it critiquing these prejudices?

02:25

Or is it just telling it how it is?

02:27

Shmoop amongst yourselves.

02:29

[1]I'd rephrase this.