Hath Not a Jew Mercy


Kevin Jacoby
Engl 225 A

Hath not a Jew Mercy?
Many of William Shakespeare’s plays have sparked controversy. Probably the one that has sparked the most controversy is The Merchant of Venice, which many intellectuals have dubbed an anti-Semitic play. The character that this discussion centers around is Shylock, the rich moneylender Jew. The problem with most of these anti-Semitic arguments is that they lack the perspective of the sixteenth century audience. Throughout Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (M of V), the audience’s perception of Shylock moves between utter hatred and varying amounts of pity. In contrast to today’s audience, the original sixteenth century audience saw Shylock’s religion as his biggest shortcoming.
Our first glimpse of Shylock’s character comes in Act I, scene 3, where Shylock reveals to the audience why he hates Antonio. The first reason he gives of why he hates Antonio is because he is a Christian. (I. iii. 43) This to the sixteenth century audience would be unreasonable, and this would evoke a sort of villainy towards Shylock. But a few moments later, the audience witnesses Shylock’s speech about Antonio’s abuses towards Shylock. (I. iii. 107-130) This speech does well in invoking the audience’s pity, however little it might be in the sixteenth century. But again at the end, Shylock offers that Antonio give up a pound of flesh as penalty of forfeiture of the bond, which Antonio sees as a joke, but which Shylock fully intends to collect. (I. iii. 144-78) This action negates any pity which Shylock would have one from the audience just a few moments before. Shakespeare, in this scene, uses Shylock’s dialogue and soliloquies to push loyalties of the audience back and forth in a result of a negative view of Shylock.
In Act II, scene 8, Salarino and Salanio describe to the audience Shylock’s reaction when he finds out that his daughter, Jessica, has run away to marry a Christian. Says Salanio:
“I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hat the stones upon her, and the ducats.’” (II. viii. 12-22)
One can’t help wondering if the message is only as trustworthy as the messenger, for as we know, Salarino and Salanio have expressed their hatred towards Shylock. However, the sixteenth century audience wouldn\'t have any reason not to believe these two men, because they have given no reason not to be to their perspective. In this re-count of events we notice that Shylock cries “O my ducats! O my daughter!” many times, which suggests that Shylock sees Jessica as just another one of her material goods, as the ducats. The audience would not respect this at all, after all, one’s daughter should be much more important than any material wealth. This is yet another instance which the audience views Shylock as a shallow miser who only thinks of himself.
Act III, scene 1 is probably the biggest turning point in the play, especially for the audience. After being badgered by Salarino and Salanio, Shylock manipulates the audience\'s sympathies by offering a monologue on revenge. The scene is as follows:
Salarino. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his flesh: what’s that good for?
Shylock. To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what is his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh?