Anti-Semitism and Gender in The Merchant Of Venice

William Shakespeare, alleged author of 'Merchant of Venice'.

William Shakespeare, alleged author of ‘Merchant of Venice’.

Of all the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, there is perhaps none that have been impacted by the history that followed more than Merchant of Venice (though there is a case to be made for Othello as well).  Though many ascribe the dramatic shift in interpretations to the Holocaust, which no doubt has played an enormous role in how the play is read in contemporary times, the shift from seeing Shylock, or ‘The Jew’ as something more complicated than an antagonist started no later than the 19th century, as pointed out by John Drakakis in the introduction of the Arden edition of the play.  To look at the piece as a work that strictly speaks to anti-Semitism though is to ignore a portion of the text that is equally important.  While the play is rich in readings that speak to social otherness, and differences in ethnicity, it also serves as a proto-feminist work that rails against patriarchal standards through characters like Portia and Jessica who are very much contextualized within a patriarchal framework.  Both aspects of the play (the portrayal of anti-Semitism and patriarchal standards) serve to challenge socially contrived behaviour and display the faults of each.


In his introduction Drakakis offers some very insightful readings, but there is a problem in the introduction in that Drakakis repeatedly  refers to the treatment of Shylock as examples of racism.  This is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Elizabethan view on the word race may have been, and very like was, extremely different than our current perception of race.  Equally problematic is the contemporary misuse of the word racism, but these are not the only issues. Even if one were to prescribe to the common use of the word racism, it simply does not apply to Shylock.  Characters like Antonio and Bassanio do not treat Shylock poorly because of his race, but rather because of one of three reasons: his business practices, his faith or, his ethnicity (which many may see as one in the same as his faith).  Do the protagonists act in a prejudicial manner toward Shylock?  It is clear they treat him poorly, but does his treatment by them precede his business dealings?  If the protagonists treat him poorly because of his usurer practices, this may be treatment based on Shylock’s on behaviour as an individual.  This is unclear in the play though.  I think it is fair to say that the characters are in all likelihood simply anti-Semitic, but I think it is also fair to suggest that there is something about Shylock’s behaviour that causes the characters to single him out, which isn’t to say that their behaviour is justified.


Patrick Stewart as Shylock in a 1978 stage production of "The Merchant Of Venice".

Patrick Stewart as Shylock in a 1978 stage production of “The Merchant Of Venice”.

Ultimately though, their treatment of Shylock seems to be hypocritical. Antonio and Bassanio seem to believe that Shylock is immoral because of his practices as a usurer, the implication being that Shylock serves mammon and not god.  This is made clear by Shylock himself when, upon losing his daughter and a small fortune, he cries out: “‘My daughter! O, my ducats!  O, my daughter’” (2.8.15).  We must be careful to accept that as fact though since it was a telling of events by Salanio who is friends with Antonio.  Later Shylock places his money above his daughter saying that he would prefer Jessica were “dead at [his] foot, and [his] jewels in her ear” (3.1.80-81).  Shylock’s wish may be in part because his daughter has forsaken her religion and not because he values money over his daughter, but it is clear that for Shylock there is an issue with priorities and that money is placed as too high a priority.  For the likes of Bassanio to criticize Shylock for this is hypocritical because Bassanio behaves in much the same manner.  Upon winning Portia, for example, he speaks not of analogies where men have won love, but rather of one where men have won wealth: “We are the Jasons; we have won the fleece” (3.2.240).  This was made clear earlier in the play. When Antonio asks Bassanio if he is in love, Bassanion replies: “Fie, fie” (1.1.46), generally taken as meaning “no”.  His feelings toward Portia are not love, but greed.  When Bassanio speaks first of Portia he mentions that she is “richly” (1.1.161) ahead of all her other attributes and goes onto speak of his pursing of Portia as a matter of being “thrift” (1.1.176).  It is clear, both from his earlier conversation with Antonio and in his later analogy that he is like Jason who captured the golden fleece that his pursuit of Portia is based largely on her finances and not on love, demonstrating that Bassanio, like Shylock, is motivated more by money than by love.



Lynn Collins, who plays Portia in the 2004 film adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice".  This is not a shot from the film.

Lynn Collins, who plays Portia in the 2004 film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice”. This is not a shot from the film.

Such hypocrisy is pointed out by Shylock as well.  Antonio refers to Shylock’s actions as an example of “tyranny and rage” (4.1.12), but it is not only Shylock who displays such rage and tyranny.  Shylock notes how Antonion has “disgraced… and hindered [him]… laughed at [his] losses, scorned [the Jewish] nation… heated [his] enemies” (3.1.49-53) and all because he is Jewish.  Clearly Antonio has made it a point to make Shylock’s life miserable, so when Shylock does the same to Antonio and Antonio refers to him as a tyrant for this behaviour, he is also calling himself a tyrant.  This hypocrisy is highlighted further by Shylock who notes that Christians have “among [them] many a purchased slave” (4.1.89) who are used “in abject and in slavish parts” (91).  There is no form of tyranny more overt than slavery.  For Antonio to be a member of a group that condones slavery and then call Shylock a tyrant because he seeks to invoke a contract enter into voluntarily by a free person is more than a little hypocritical. It is also perhaps interesting to note that Antonio, who according to Shylock had loaned out money to a great many people, free of interest, in order to undermine the profits Shylock made from loaning money, should be unable to find anybody other than Shylock to lend him money when he needs it.  There should have been any number of his fellow Christians who hoped to return the favour, but none did, and so “Christian charity” seems utterly lacking in Venice and demonstrates the disconnect between the values projected by Christians and those practiced by Christians.


Lynn Collins, who portrayed Portia in the 2004 adaptation of "Merchant of Venice".

Lynn Collins, who portrayed Portia in the 2004 adaptation of “Merchant of Venice”.

There is also a thread similar to the one present in Othello where Shylock’s immorality seems to be more of a manifestation of Christian society than his own innate nature.  In one line Shylock says: “since I am a dog, beware my fangs” (3.3.7).  This is playing on what Christians have been saying of him throughout the play.  Because they describe him as a dog, he eventually takes on the characteristics they have been attributing him.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.  But this relationship brought to the reader with great clarity when Shylock speaks to matters of revenge.  Shylock asks: “if you wrong us shall we not revenge” (3.1.60).  Then he demonstrates the lessons he has learned from Christians: “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?  Revenge!  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian examples?  Why, revenge!  The villainy you teach me I will execute” (61-65).  Just as Othello was not moved to jealousy until inspired by deceit, Shylock demonstrates that his motives to revenge himself against the likes of Antonio is the result, not of his nature, but rather is a manifestation of influence ‘Christian’ behaviour has had on him.   Shylock, though compared to the devil himself throughout the play, compares Christians to the devil when he is asked to show mercy on Antonio: “What, wouldst thou have a serpents sting thee twice” (4.1.68)?  This allusion to a serpent aligns Antonio with the Edenic expression of Lucifer who presented himself as a serpent to Eve.  While the ‘Christians’ of the play use rhetoric that aligns Shylock with the Devil, Shylock makes it clear that such rhetoric is equally applicable to the ‘Christians’ of the play.


Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Jessica in the 2004 film adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice".

Zuleikha Robinson, who plays Jessica in the 2004 film adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice”.

There is a question of Jessica though.  She, like Shylock, is Jewish, but is she treated in the same manner?  It is not perhaps as overt, but it is clear that despite Lorenzo’s willingness to marry Jessica, she is not accepted by other Christians.  Indeed, the only other Christian character who speaks to Jessica is Lancelet the clown, and he speaks to her disparagingly, in a manner certainly unlike how any member of the servant class would speak to the lady of the house where they are employed.  Jessica, though not overtly offered the same abuse as her father, is marginalized nonetheless.  With the exception of receiving an instruction from Portia in the final act, no Christian speaks to her other than Lorenzo and Lancelet.  In the scenes where she is present, other women ignore her out right and nobody speaks to her.  Her acceptance is tentative and unconvincingly rationalized by some, such as Salarino who suggests that Shylock is not actually her father (3.1.34-38), and Lancelet who suggests her best hope is to hope that she is a bastard (3.5.7).


Lynn Collins as Portia.

Lynn Collins as Portia.

In marrying Jessica without her father’s permission, we see the other half of the play: the railing of patriarchy.  Though patriarchy was a system valued by Christians and Elizabethans alike, it is one that is cast aside when it is found to be convenient in the play.  It could be argued that the Portia character upholds patriarchy, but it is also is clear that she does not approve of her father’s method to choose a groom for her, and there is a suggestion that she means to undermine he father’s wishes when she suggests to Bassanio that she will “teach [him]… to choose right” (3.2.10-11).  Here Portia displays a willingness to undermine the spirit of her father’s wishes by teaching Bassanio how to select, whilst still upholding the letter of her father’s instructions by not overtly telling Bassanio which casket is the correct one.  While Portia herself challenges patriarchal authority here, the author seems to challenge patriarchal gender roles at the same time.   Portia displayed the ability to reason, a masculine gender trait according to patriarchal stereotypes.  Bassanio though, proves rash and suggests that such talking, and by extension reasoning, is akin to living “upon the rack” (3.2.25), or rather, being tortured.  This impulsiveness and distrust of reason would have been reserved for the ‘feminine’ realm, but here it is Bassanio displaying this behaviour whilst Portia is adopting the ‘masculine’ role.


Lawrence Olivier, who also has played the role of Shylock during his career.

Lawrence Olivier, who also has played the role of Shylock during his career.

There is also a scene which Drakakis refers to in which, using rhyming couplets, Portia attempts to make clear which casket Bassanio should choose.  Portia speaks in rhyming couplets, and gives three lines that all end with words that rhyme phonetically with “lead”: bred, head, nourished (3.2.63-65).  With the pattern established Bassanio is asked to “reply” with his choice, no doubt in a manner that will fit the structure of the rhyme scheme handed off to him, completing the second of the two couplets.  Since the casket with lead is the only casket that can fit the rhyme scheme, Bassanio has been, whether he realizes it or not, spoon-fed the answer.  When giving Bassanio her ring, Portia seems to lament the loss of her independence, suggesting that she was “lord” (a masculine specific term) over herself, her home and servants (3.2.167-168) but gives this authority over to Bassanio.  There is a condition though.  Should Bassanio ever give her ring away, that authority will be transferred to the recipient of the ring (172-174), a promise that comes up soon afterwards that further challenges patriarchy.



Sarah Silverman, though more likely to be cast as Jessica, would make for a very interesting Portia.

Sarah Silverman, though more likely to be cast as Jessica, would make for a very interesting Portia.

Neither Antonio nor Bassanio can come up with a solution to Antonio’s blood debt to Shylock, but hoping to rid her husband of the obligation he has to Antonio, Portia disguises herself as a man with the hopes of passing herself off as a lawyer.  This process, as Grace Tiffany notes in her monograph Erotic Beasts and Social Monster, “explode[s] gender categories by illuminating stereotypically male behaviour as fictive role-play, performable by either sex” (Tiffany, 93).  It is not the men who are witty and self-sufficient in this play, but rather Portia, subverting patriarchal gender roles.  She alone displays the wherewithal to discover the flaw in the contract signed with Shylock, rescuing Antonio from his obligations (4.1.325-333).  Bassanio proceeds to display an utter lack of loyalty to Portia and his promise to her when he offers the ring given to him by Portia to the lawyer who rescued Antonio from Shylock, not realizing that the lawyer is Portia in disguise.  Here Bassanio values the “deservings” of the lawyer and Antonio’s “love withal… against [his] wife’s commandment” (4.1.451-452).  Bassanio places the homosocial relationships between men above the heterosexual relationship with his wife, a patriarchal standard at the time.  As the play concludes we discover that what Bassanio thought was a man more deserving of his loyalty than his wife is actually his wife, a plot twist that articulates that the love for a woman is as, or perhaps more, worthy than love for a man, challenging patriarchal misconceptions while uplifting women.  In having the ring returned to her, Portia also is made autonomous again as the ring was meant to symbolize authority, an authority she gave to Bassanio and was returned to her.


Lynn Collins and Heather Goldenhersh as Portia and Nerissa respectively in the 2004 film adaptation of "Merchant of Venice".

Lynn Collins and Heather Goldenhersh as Portia and Nerissa respectively in the 2004 film adaptation of “Merchant of Venice”.

The play is infused with a number of other elements.  Portia for example, demonstrates some less flattering characteristics when she is wooed by the prince of Morocco, whose skin she finds is too dark.  There are the homosexual undertones between Antonio and Bassanio, which lend the play to a queer theory reading and regarding matter of anti-Semitism and patriarchy, I have only touched on a small portion of them.  There is also an interesting contemporary reading that can be seen to challenge the military response America has in the Middle-East (we might read Shylock as a terrorist attempting to kill Antonio who is the manifestation of Shylock’s oppressor, a reading that would challenge us to consider the validity of ‘revenge’ killings and the West’s part in creating such a hostile and counterproductive atmosphere).  The play is among the best of those attributed to Shakespeare and even as the history of several centuries has passed the work, it is still relevant today.  As to whether the play itself is anti-Semitic, I would say no.  It seems to me like each of the characters are presented in a fashion that is equally despicable.  Antonio and Bassanio are no less villainous in this play than is Shylock, they just refuse to examine their own actions the way they examine Shylock’s.  If the Elizabethan audience saw this play as supporting anti-Semitic sentiments in England, I would suggest that this is a result of a lazy reading that might fairly be expected of a group of people who were predominantly as hypocritical as the characters presented in the play.  The play itself, to me, is clearly not anti-Semitic. It speaks to the corrupting aspects present in all of humanity, not simply those who are Jewish, and it speaks to how such inhumanity breeds inhumanity in others.  It’s an amazing work and one well worth reading no less than a dozen times.

Al Pacino performing Shylock’s famous speech:


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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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