To What Extent Is the Merchant of Venice a Microcosm of the Elizabethan Era?

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In Elizabethan England, many of the general public were anti – Semitic and driven by extreme dislike of other religions other than Christianity. This anti – Semitic sensitivity has lasted since the early ages, dating back to 1300 B. C. when the Jews were expelled from Egypt at the end of the nineteenth Dynasty.. Jews were accused of exploiting Christians and they were actually banned from England in 1290, and were not allowed back into England several decades after ‘The Merchant of Venice’ had been written. The Elizabethans were ignorant of the Jewish culture.

Shakespeare knew that the majority of the population was Christian and had to write something that was somewhat an outrage to the Jews. So he decided to write the Merchant of Venice, in which he deliberately included stereotypical prejudice to reflect current society. The play in the earlier part of the twentieth century also became very popular in Germany, extreme anti-Semitism being encouraged when Hitler came to power. In recent times the “Holocaust” was our gravest tragedy which in fact was the most brutal and momentous event in Anti-Semitism which really portrayed the true and utter hatred of the Jewish people by the Nazi party.

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The character Shylock was a stereotypical Jew of his time, and as Jews were generally ostracized from normal society, the audience would have been familiar and understanding with Shakespeare’s characterisation, actually finding Shylock a comedic figure whereas today he is seen as tragic. In Shakespeare’s time, Jews were not treated well at all. This was because they were a minority group, as they had been previously banned from the country by Edward I unless they were willing to convert to Christianity.

But, in large European cities, like Venice there was a large Jewish population. As these cities relied on trade, the authorities encouraged Jews to become moneylenders. This was because the Christian law, which forbade money lending for profit, did not apply to them. Moneylenders were not popular, as up until the late sixteenth century it had been illegal to receive interest on lent money, and even after that, although legal (it became vital for trade), it was considered a sin. Many moneylenders charged high rates of interest, even though the legal rate was ten per cent, as eople were willing to pay more, and some became very rich. The Merchant of Venice was most likely written in either 1596 or 1597, after Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The central plot, with the characters of the merchant, the meagre suitor, the beautiful lady, and the iniquitous Jew, is found in a number of modern-day Italian collected works. Shakespeare used numerous details, such as the choice of caskets that Portia’s father enforces on her suitors, from pre-existing sources.

The Merchant of Venice’s Italian setting and marriage plot are typical of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but the characters of Portia, Shakespeare’s first great female protagonist, and the unforgettable rogue Shylock elevate this play to a ground-breaking division. Shylock is an unforgettable figure in English Literature as his cries for Antonio’s flesh, have much been scrutinised by those of the Elizabethan era casting him as a villain and seeking him as a brute. The readers of today however feel that Shylock, an honourable man, is momentous and truly compassionate.

The play has been debated as to whether or not it endorses the anti-Semitism of the Christian characters in the play. The Jews of Shakespeare’s time were a subsidiary group and irrelevant to society. Many had mocked them and stereotyped these people as “gluttonous” and “uncouth. ” For example, The Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe was a great success which was about a brutal and murderous Jewish Villain. Shakespeare certainly draws in on this particular character and brings him from just a “puppet” to real life.

This play is not just an interesting insight of Elizabethan society but of society throughout the ages both before this period and up-to-the present day. It relates in detail how we as people display human frailties and characteristics such as anger, greed, envy as well as love, friendship and loyalty. Nothing has really changed from Shakespeare’s time as there are still minorities who are excluded from mainstream society, people still plot and scheme and we still live in an inherently patriarchal society. The anti – Semitism which surrounds England at this time is portrayed effectively for comic effect.

The great Shakespeare himself however may not only have been writing in crude and chauvinistic terms for the audience of that time but future proofing his work and thinking ahead to the modern age where we can sympathise with poor Shylock and extract from us pity and sorrow. This adds another dimension to the play which truly makes it an outstanding work which is worthy of note. You could not afford in Shakespeare’s England if you were a Jew, to mess with the ultimate leaders of civilization, the Christians. They liked to consider themselves as the highest of the highest and closest to God.

Christians were often referred to in Shakespeare’s work as “Christ-like”, “intellectual” and “messianic. ” Bassanio is a gentleman of Venice albeit of limited funds. He wishes to marry Portia a wealthy heiress but to do so he must first raise sufficient resources to appear worthy enough of Portia’s hand and then he must endure the lottery of the three caskets. If he chooses the correct casket he will be allowed to marry Portia but if he does not he will join the long line of desperate suitors who wish to marry this beautiful and intelligent young woman but who have ultimately been unsuccessful.

Antonio asks Bassanio to tell him about the clandestine love that Bassanio is harbouring. In reply, Bassanio admits that although he already owes Antonio a substantial sum of money from his earlier, more extravagant days, he has fallen in love with Portia, a rich heiress from Belmont, and hopes to win her heart by holding his own with her other wealthy and powerful suitors. In order to woo Portia, however, Bassanio says he needs to borrow more money from Antonio. Bassanio quotes to Antonio as a plea for money, “In my school days, when I had lost one shaft,The selfsame way with more advised watch.

To find the other forth—and by adventuring both,I oft found both. “ Bassanio is trying to illustrate that luck can bring Antonio good fortune. He believes that Antonio lending him more money than previous would be able to gain back the debt and repay him back twice over. This method however may not be reliable as Bassanio had compared this game of rolling in money to catching a stray arrow. Antonio replies that he cannot give Bassanio another loan, as all his money is tied up in his present business ventures, but offers to guarantee any loan Bassanio can acquire.

In order to raise the funds Bassanio must borrow the money from Shylock using Antonio a rich merchant and his friend as a guarantor but with a not inconsiderable caveat attached to the loan. Antonio will forfeit his life if he defaults on the loan and this relies on the safe passage of his ships to their ultimate destinations. Bizarrely, Shylock who has been continually vilified and despised by Antonio, one of his main persecutors, offers to lend the money without charging any interest.

This is highly unusual especially for a Jewish moneylender but does it mean Shylock is less interested in recouping the funds by perhaps obtaining acceptance into normal society or ultimately by gaining retribution from one of his greatest antagonists? The Three Caskets display significant symbolism with-in the play on one hand in a patriarchal sense by ensuring Portia’s father extends his power over her from beyond the grave and secondly by using the caskets as a representation of Christianity. The Gold Casket represents greed and desire and lures potential suitors into believing that what lies with-in is worthwhile.

The gold casket represents the desires of many men. Its inscription reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire. ” Any man, who only desires Portia, will not get his desire. The Prince of Morocco says that many women find him handsome and he desires Portia because she is beautiful, just like he believes he is himself. He learned that his vanity and greed will not gain him her hand in marriage. His vanity is shown when he decides to go straight to the caskets, before getting to know Portia better. Greed is shown when he chooses the gold casket because it is “ten times” more valued than the silver or the gold.

The silver casket again dazzles to deceive implying that Silver is purified several times and therefore one’s judgement must also be as pure. The silver casket represents what many men deserve. Its inscription reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves. ” A man is not deserving of Portia until he has gotten to know her first but The Prince of Aragon learned that stupidity and always wanting to take the safe path will earn him nothing in life. Like Morocco, he is stupid for not getting to know Portia before he chooses the casket.

He takes the safe road by not choosing the gold casket because it is too showy, and by not choosing the lead casket because he does not want to give anything at all. The lead casket is the antithesis of the first two the plain appearance belying the true treasure which awaits the correct suitor and that is a choice made for love and happiness rather than monetary gain. The lead casket represents a man’s duty in marriage. Its inscription reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath. ” In order to receive a gift as precious as Portia, he must learn how to give everything to her.

Bassiano was the only smart suitor and he realized that the only way to receive is to give himself. He asks himself if maybe the caskets are, “Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? ” Therefore, he chooses the lead casket. Silver and gold are nothing but ornaments to hide true ugliness inside. Lead, though ugly, is only covering up the true beauty inside. The three caskets are perfect representations of what men desire, deserve, and their responsibilities. They remind the suitors that they cannot always have what they desire, they cannot always get what they deserve, and sometimes in order to receive you must first give.

I think the Three Caskets challenge represents a true moral to the reader which is to love everything you have and to give whatever you can. At the start of Act 2 Scene 1, the Prince of Morocco tries his hand at wooing Portia. Many however would refer to him as a “moor. ” The term “moor” came to refer to “black moors” along with Arabs – it covered both “Arabs” and black Africans. It also carries a religious distinction: “Moors” were considered as enemies of the Christian faith. The term “Moor” is interchangeable with the word, “Black. ”

Since the mid-sixteenth century black people had been known in London and by the time Shakespeare was writing the slave trade had begun. Ships carrying black slaves passed through London and not altogether surprisingly in an age before tourism, foreigners in general were regarded with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. To be black was doubly foreign and doubly strange. The Prince of Morocco in his opening lines straight away states to Portia to consider him for his personality and not his looks, for example “Mislike me not for my complexion. The shadowed livery of the burnished sun, to whom I am a neighbour and near bred. Morocco here immediately tries to draw Portia’s thoughts away from his complexion as he may feel insecure and unworthy. He does not want to be thrown out of the draw as a victim of prejudice and is all aware of his skin colour by suggesting words of darkness like “shadowed” and “burnished. ” The Prince also uses these words as a metaphor to describe his hue. He compares his colour to a dark uniform of a burnt sun, to highlight his complexion. There is also antithesis in the words “dark” and “sun. ” We can see this as oxymoron because two extreme opposites are placed closely together.

However, Morocco has great confidence in his personality in which he believes will win Portia, for example, “I would o’er-stare the sternest eyes that look, Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth…” He is courageous, confident and willing to lose everything for her. This is shown through the use of superlatives for example, “sternest” and “daring,” and tries to alter Portia’s thinking which entails magical power. This gives a supernatural feel to the Prince’s charm. Shakespeare also uses hyperbole in his words to exaggerate the Prince’s confidence of wherein he would fight any soul.

In the time of Shakespeare the Venetian society was influenced by men building a patriarchal society and women were very much thought of and treated as second class citizens. In Act 2 Scene 3 we see Jessica and Lancelot, Shylock’s servant, talking about his master and the forthcoming elopement. Jessica feels a sense of entrapment and highlights her loneliness and concern for whenever Lancelot is not present. She explains what life is like without him, for example “Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil. ” Jessica compares him to a funny devil.

There is a use of antithesis here by juxtaposing “merry” and “devil. ” We compare the devil, the darkest, most fearsome and terrifying creature to such a light hearted gesture causing oxymoron. The reader can feel the thoughts of Jessica by doing this and we can empathise greatly. Shylock’s behaviour towards Jessica was typical of the time and not unusual as he himself was mean spirited towards all around him and did not make an exception for his daughter. Jessica on the other hand seems to be rather selfish and self-centred only interested in her personal happiness.

She is rather cruel and offhand by exchanging the ring, a family heirloom, given to her father by her mother for a monkey which seems to be a heartless gesture and elicits a momentary sympathy for Shylock. When Shylock finds out that Jessica bought a monkey with Leah’s ring, he exclaims in a tone of anguish; “It was my turquoise! I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor! ” As the reader scrolls through these words we can feel the anguish and torment Shylock experiences. Shakespeare uses such techniques as exclamatory sentences to address the audience and highlight his feeling of betrayal.

Cross-dressing is a powerful motif which allows the female characters to adopt an entirely different persona that of the male and this reinforces the power of the Patriarchal culture in Venetian society. Portia’s and Nerissa’s disguise transforms them from being somewhat inconsequential figures with minimal influence to Portia’s portrayal of a lawyer who influences the outcome of the trial and ultimately saves the life of Antonio albeit at a cost to Shylock. Portia is convinced she can prove herself to be at least the equal of, if not better than her male counterparts as she assumes the power and position denied to her as a woman.

Portia and Nerissa rescue Antonio by posing as officers of the Venetian court. This device was very familiar to Renaissance drama and essential to its performance: women were banned from the stage and their parts were performed by young boys. Shakespeare was a great fan of cross-dressing and used the device often, especially in his comedies. Portia reveals that the donning of men’s clothes is more than mere comedy. She says that she has studied a “thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks,” implying that male authority is a kind of performance that can be imitated successfully.

She feels confident that she can outwit any male competitor, declaring, “I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, and wear my dagger with the braver grace”. By assuming the clothes of the opposite sex, Portia enables herself to assume the power and position denied to her as a woman. In Act 2 scene 2, a different type of loyalty can be seen. Lancelot Gobbo decides to betray his Master, Shylock, and go to attain work from Bassanio. Shakespeare uses this character as a comic relief and throughout the play, Lancelot Gobbo is the comedy clown. “Well, my conscience says, ‘Lancelot, budge not. ‘Budge,’ says the fiend. ‘Budge not,’ says my conscience. ” Lancelot’s reasoning is confused but it ultimately brings him to the realisation that since the Jew is “a king of devil”, he should not serve him, although the conscience usually requires a man to give loyal service to his master. Lancelot speaks of Shylock as the devil’s “incarnation” and this shows the extent of his hatred for the selfish Jew. The comedy builds when Lancelot’s father, Old Gobbo, is introduced into the text. Old Gobbo is severely blind as quoted “more than sandblind” and does not recognize his son.

He sees before him only the dim image of a man who he hopes can direct him to Shylock’s house. Lancelot is delighted to bump into his father, whom he has not seen for a long time, and so he conceals his true identity and playfully confuses the old man with much clowning and double-talk, before revealing who he really is and kneeling to receive his father’s blessing. The clowns were immense favourites with the Elizabethan audiences. Their parts involved a great deal of comic stage business—improvised actions, gestures, and expressions—and they had their own special routines.

Lancelot, for example, would use mime, expressions of horror or stupid self-satisfaction, mockery or parody movements around the stage which are exaggerated. This sort of scene is not written for verbal comedy (as Portia’s scenes are) but Shakespeare wrote them to give his actors as much range as was necessary for visual actions. Today we call these gimmick’s “sight gags” or “slapstick. ” The dialogue itself is not particularly witty because the comedy was meant to be mostly physical. Lancelot’s opening speech takes the form of a debate between “the fiend” and his own “conscience. The comedy here lies in the fact that the jester-clown Lancelot should regard himself as the hero of a religious drama, but this gives him the opportunity to mimic two separate parts, jumping back and forth on the stage and addressing himself: “Well, my conscience says, ‘Lancelot, budge not. ‘ ‘Budge,’ says the fiend. ‘Budge not,’ says my conscience”. Visually, this makes good comedy; while reading this play aloud, we can imagine that the voice of the conscience is delivered in elevated, falsetto, flute-like tones; the voice of the fiend, in contrast, is delivered in low, evil-sounding snarls.

Verbal confusion was also a favourite device and it occurs throughout the play. For example, the directions for finding Shylock’s house which Lancelot gives to his father: “Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning of no hand, but turn down indirectly. ” These puzzling directions are given to his father as a taunt which makes us sympathise with Old Gobbo. It’s no surprise that Old Gobbo exclaims “’twill be a hard way to hit! ” There is more visual comedy when the two Gobbos confront Bassanio.

It is suggested by the lines in this scene that Lancelot bends down behind his father, popping up to interrupt him and finishing his sentences for him. This kind of comedy depends on visual and verbal confusion, especially mistaking obvious words and phrases. Here, Lancelot speaks of his “true-begotten father,” and he uses “infection” for affection, “frutify” for certify, “defect” for effect, and so on. This legacy is evident today in modern screenplays as many modern comedians and actors such as Ronnie Barker and David Jason use word confusion and visual gags to produce laughter.

The Elizabethan Age was a period of massive expansion especially for England whose naval fleet really did expand the borders of trade and territory. Famous contemporary explorers of the time were looked upon as heroes and men such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake (a legalised pirate) and also John Cabot who was a merchant of Venetian origin were living legends greatly admired by the general public. Also, at this time the universe as a whole was being redefined and the earth’s boundaries were being explored to the known limits and beyond.

Conversely, the funding of these high risk ventures mainly relied upon the Jewish moneylenders which was necessary but at the same time resented by the Christian community. As seen in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio the trusted merchant is highly credited and welcomes those of foreign derivation into his trading circle but only in the interests of being a breadwinner for the town. Anti-Semitism in Elizabethan times was based on religious grounds as most Christians believed Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.

Marlow a contemporary of Shakespeare wrote a play called the Jew of Malta where the main character and protagonist Barabas was clearly portrayed as a villain on the grandest scale suffering a terrible death which appealed to the less refined sentiments of the audience. It is clear however that this play is not simply anti-Semitic even though it clearly vilifies the Jew but satirises Christian society for its hypocrisy and deceit. Therefore it would appear strange if Shakespeare himself did not present Shylock as the main protagonist with all of the perceived frailties and characteristics of the Jewish people as defined at this time.

Venice was a centre of trade, industry and culture. More than 140,000 people lived there which was a considerable population in those days. Venice was at the centre of Europe but more importantly provided a gateway to the Far East and the Orient allowing access to the great trade routes of the world. It was not only an international centre of trade, it was important culturally and allowed people from different races and countries the opportunity to exchange ideas and opinions. Non white Europeans such as Jews, Moors, and other ethnic minorities were deemed to be less than equal status to the mainstream white Christian population.

This is made clear for example when The Prince of Morocco who believes himself to be a suitable suitor for Portia says immediately on arrival, “Mislike me not for my complexion. The shadowed livery of the burnished sun” and we can see he is referring directly to the colour of his skin and is asking Portia to disregard it. This form of racism has endured throughout the centuries and a reference of note would be that of Rudyard Kipling who believed the White Man had the burden and responsibility of bringing the blessings of their superior civilization to the savages of the non-European world.

In conclusion, I do believe The Merchant of Venice is a microcosm of the Elizabethan Age. It portrays true features from Elizabethan England such as the comic effect of racism and mockery of people seen as the “Other. ” The “Merchant of Venice” has shown that Shakespeare has not only written for an Elizabethan audience when writing the play, but written in a style which has stood the test of time and which a modern audience would find contemporary, interesting, dealing with issues such as inequality, racism and religion.

The message put across by these topics would get different reactions within the two divergent eras. The vast majority of a modern audience would have different views concerning prejudice, racism and religion apart from those who continue to hold Far Right extremist views. Most modern viewers however would have sympathy for Shylock which increases throughout the play, as he is continuously ridiculed and scorned even by his daughter Jessica in certain parts of the play.

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To What Extent Is the Merchant of Venice a Microcosm of the Elizabethan Era?. (2017, Mar 28). Retrieved from

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