How does Shakespeare`s portrayal of the relationship between

March 14, 2018 | Author: Anonymous | Category: Arts & Humanities, English, Literature, Shakespeare
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How does Shakespeare’s portrayal of the relationship between Shylock and his world move us to a deeper understanding of suffering? In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text. Sample response: Drama Prescribed text: The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare, 1597 How changing contexts affect audience reactions to characters

The Merchant of Venice, written in 1597, presents difficulties for modern directors and audiences because it seems highly prejudiced against Jewish people. In particular, Shylock’s role in the play reflects the Elizabethan world-view of race and religion, which is very different from the contemporary view. The play was written during the three hundred and fifty-year period when no Jews were allowed to set foot in England, so Shakespeare’s audience would have had very different views from us. They would never have met a Jewish person and they would have been taught that any religious view other than Christianity was sinful. Moreover, Jews were especially reviled because of the belief that they were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. Where we today see Shylock as a character to be pitied in many ways, because he suffers a number of indignities, the Elizabethan audience would only have seen a comic character, someone to laugh at and mock for his weaknesses, and someone who fully deserved to be punished for his central failings of greed and revenge.

Shylock’s treatment by other men

Throughout the play, Shylock suffers in a number of ways, in particular from the universal anti-Semitism he encounters in Venice, and from the cruel treatment by his daughter, Jessica. He and Tubal, another wealthy Jewish money-lender, are reviled by everyone for not being Christian. It is assumed they are evil and untrustworthy and they are frequently openly insulted. The term “dog” is used throughout the play to refer to Shylock, both to his face and behind his back. He is automatically considered to be deceitful and lying because he is Jewish. When Shylock quotes from the Old Testament, Antonio dismisses it, saying, “What a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Antonio is keen to secure a deal with Shylock, but throughout the exchange he insults him, calling him a “cut-throat dog”, “the devil” and “an evil soul”.

Shylock and Jessica

Shylock suffers at least as much from Jessica’s behaviour. There is dramatic irony here – from the beginning of the play, the audience knows that she is intending to steal money and jewels from her father, convert to Christianity and elope with Lorenzo. Most of Venice knows as well, Shylock being the only one who does not know. Jessica says, “I am asham’d to be my father’s child!”, and her asides throughout the play tell us he is going to have a nasty shock. She makes it clear that when she goes, she will be lost to him forever. This compounds the audience’s understanding of his suffering, because he tells us throughout how much he loves her and how important she is to him. The scene where Salanio describes Shylock’s distress about the elopement would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience, but we react with sympathy for Shylock’s irreparable loss. Salanio says that Shylock is “confused” and unable to decide what is more important, the loss of Jessica, the jewels or the money, which the original audience would have read as a sign of Shylock’s greed. However, we know how important Jessica is to him, so we are not surprised that he is confused when he discovers the extent of her deceit.

Elizabethan response to Jessica’s elopement

Shylock as the outsider in the play

Throughout the play, Shylock is presented as the outsider, rejected by Christian Venice. In the trial scene, he is referred to as an “alien” who does not have the same rights as a Venetian citizen. The dietary and behavioural rules of his religion prevent him from dining with his business associates, but he is also somewhat offended by the excessive eating and drinking around him, commenting at one point that he keeps a “sober house”. While this would be considered virtuous in a Christian man, it makes no difference to the general view of Shylock as evil. The audience is expected to feel

sympathy for the suffering of Antonio and Bassanio, but when Shylock describes his misfortunes, Jessica’s betrayal and the bad debt, other characters dismiss his concerns – his feelings don’t count because he is Jewish. When Portia gives her ruling about the pound of flesh and makes it clear that he has lost the case, he has still more to lose. As an alien who has threatened the life of a Venetian citizen, he forfeits all his wealth, and to compound the punishment, Antonio insists that he convert from Judaism to Christianity. He disappears from the play at the end of Act IV, dispossessed of daughter, wealth and religion. Shylock causes others to suffer

How Shylock’s actions cause the audience to shift allegiance

Conclusion summarises the main points of the argument

While we understand something about the nature of suffering from the discrimination Shylock endures, he also creates suffering, especially for Antonio. Shylock deserves some penalty for his vengefulness, even though his punishment seems excessive to modern eyes. It is clear early in the play that he is motivated by hatred and a desire for revenge, because Antonio is a business rival who undercuts him and makes him look greedy by not charging any interest on his loans. The pound of flesh will “feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”, because Antonio has “disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. And what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” He wants Antonio’s life – “I will have the heart of him, if he forfeit”, and feeds off the prejudice he encounters – “Since I am a dog, beware my fangs”. The bond of a pound of flesh is sinister and unreasonable and Bassanio is right to be suspicious and concerned when the agreement is made. Shylock will not let Antonio escape the bond, insisting on the letter of the law and legal justice above mercy. Up to this point, we have had some sympathy for Shylock and the unjust racism he encounters, but his determination to have Antonio legally murdered transfers the suffering from Shylock to Antonio and puts Shylock in the role of tormentor. This is reinforced when he is seen sharpening his knife in the courtroom. Shylock’s treatment by the Venetian aristocracy is seen in our contemporary terms as blatant anti-Semitism and racism, so we acknowledge that he suffers in a way that Elizabethan audiences would not have understood. We also understand the deep pain he feels from Jessica’s betrayal, and from the fact that he is stripped of everything he owns and holds dear at the end. However, we also know that he wants to kill Antonio and make those around him suffer, which undercuts the sympathy we feel for his plight.

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