Teaching The Merchant of Venice
By Kayleigh Kearsley
Several educators have refused to teach William Shakespeare’s famous play, The
Merchant of Venice in their classroom due to the antisemitism so blatantly displayed throughout the work. While it is a comedy, the jokes are often so cruel that they fall flat for modern audience and Jews are horrifically treated as subhuman. The Jewish Shylock is portrayed as the villain in the play, and he is completely betrayed by his daughter, who steals his valuable possessions and marries a Christian. In the end, his spirit is completely broken, as he is manipulated into give up a part of his identity by converting to Christianity. The play is full of dark, prejudicial humor and is more tragic than it is funny. However, despite these harder themes and discrimination, a close reading reveals that the underlying themes of the play dispute the justification of the Christians’ privilege, and as long as the reading is accompanied with meaningful, careful discussion, I believe that this play can be a great benefit to curriculums.
In the beginning of the play, the merchant of Venice, who is a Christian named Antonio, is very cruel towards Shylock the Jew and acts arrogant and superior because of his religion. It’s revealed that he, though he is typically very passive and kind, has actively mocked and belittled Shylock because he is a Jew. His behavior is very reflective of the way Christians treated Jews in Elizabethan time period. However, after Antonio has forfeited his loan to Shylock, he is filled with resignation and seems to actually feel guilty about the way he treated Shylock. Antonio seems to realize that, perhaps, he was wrong to treat Shylock so cruelly simply because he was a Jew. The superiority he felt from being a Christian was not enough to ensure him business success, which proves that both Christians and Jews are not that different.
The underlying message that Christians and Jews are more similar than they are different is further illustrated by Shylock’s famous speech in the third act, which included my favorite lines from the play. He passionately implores,
“... 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? If you
poison us, do we not die?” (Shakespeare 97-99)
This desperate plea begs the characters in the play and the audience to realize that Jews and Christians truly aren’t that different. Throughout the play, both Antonio and Shylock are brutally cruel and both are unsuccessful at times, which shows that the inherent superiority of Christians may not actually be justified.
Though the end of the play follows Elizabethan views of the superiority of Christians, the bitter way Shylock is demoralized and completely broken by the Christians leaves the audience feeling more sympathetic towards Shylock. This was a very radical view for an Elizabethan work, and it is a great way to have discussions about antisemitism and why it is wrong. Because of these complex views and topics, this is a great play to teach in classrooms, so long as teachers are willing to have these types of discussions with their students. I read this play for my Shakespeare class, and we were able to have these discussions, which helped me to gain a greater awareness of the danger and cruelty of prejudice. This close reading, which were emphasized and dissected through class discussions, proved that the famous play represents the way the inherent superiority of one religion may not be justified, and all human beings have the choice to be cruel or kind, which is an important lesson to understand and apply today.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010.