Although set in Italy, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ reflects the attitudes of Elizabethan England; it shows many Anti-Semitic traits within the characters and Shylock, a Jew, is viewed as a greedy, manipulative man. However, the play also looks at whether Shylock is to blame for this or the Christians, who torment him because of his religion throughout the play. The first characters that we are shown in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are Christians, showing us that Christians will play a very central role within the play.
The characters of Solarino and Solanio appear in the first scene with Antonio and, although they do not play a role within the play that aids the plot evolvement, they do give a very good picture of how the majority of Christians perceive the Jews, which is as “currish” and “harsh”. However, we do not see this dark side to them immediately; they appear to be jovial, comical characters in the first scene when they are trying to cheer Antonio up, and raise the tone by suggesting they all should “laugh like parrots at a bag-piper”. However, as we see more of them throughout the play their true beliefs become very apparent.
Even if they do not state bluntly their opinions towards Jews they express their hatred and prejudice in the language they use. For example, when talking about Shylock, they call him names such as “villain Jew” and “dog”. This is especially insulting to people of the Jewish religion and although he is not present at the time they still describe him as this, showing how it is buried within their mind how much they dislike the Jews and it is as though they naturally insult them even when it is not required or will cause them direct insult.
Antonio, in the title role, is a Christian who appears to be much loved within his circle of friends. They are always praising him by complimenting his spirit and saying to him that they would sacrifice everything “to deliver you”. They try to take care of him by cheering him up or insulting his enemies. However, one could argue that Bassanio is only praising him in Scene 1 in order to blackmail him into giving him money. However, by doing this it also shows that Bassanio knew Antonio would be willing to give the money, showing his generous spirit and kindness to his friends.
We can see for ourselves the generosity and kindness in Antonio. It is suggested that he is in love with Bassanio, yet he is willing to lend out money to pay for him to marry a woman whom he, Antonio, has never met. This shows the lengths to which he will go in order to make his friends happy and please them, regardless of how it makes himself feel. Having said this it is this “good Antonio” whom many believe to be upstanding and righteous, who says some of the most racist lines within the play.
When going to borrow the money from Shylock we would have expected to see Antonio being kind and civil, as we have seen him so far; however this is certainly not the case, even though Shylock is the one doing Antonio the favour. Calling Shylock an “apple rotted at the heart” shows how Antonio really believes these Jews to be. This is the first instance within the play that we see the double views of these Christians; we wonder how people who are so complimentary and kind towards their friends can be so insulting and venomous towards people of another religion.
We would have thought that Antonio might be one to sympathise with Shylock, as they are both lonely and deserted in their lives, Shylock by the leaving of his daughter and Antonio by the lack of friends and love from those he holds dear. Another Christian who appears to be much loved is Bassanio. He appears to be almost the hero of the play; being good-looking, carefree and friends with everyone. He is described as being “loyal Bassanio” and although this shows us how positively his friends view him, we have to question it.
He uses Antonio’s love for him in order to get him to lend him money, which nearly results in the death of Antonio, and he uses this money to travel to marry Portia, showing that he does not care for Antonio’s feelings. One could also say that he is wasteful with his money. He has parties and banquets when it is obvious he has no money as he has had to borrow some; it is only by marrying wealthy Portia that he comes by any. By doing this we question his love for her, whether it is genuine or it is her fortune that he is interested in.
Having said this he does also have many good characteristics; he is one of the least anti-Semitic Christian characters and even invites Shylock to “dine with us”, showing how he would happily sit and “be merry” with a Jew. However, Shylock refuses saying Gratiano is again a Christian who appears to be an objective, good-natured character. Many of the other Christian characters speak about him with praise and admiration. He always appears to be happy and jovial and is a character who adds a light-hearted ‘spin’ to the play and makes the comedy free flowing and frequent.
His humour affects the other characters and they find themselves laughing even in times of great stress and worry. For example, when Lorenzo is running away with Jessica in Act 2 Scene VI Gratiano makes a joke by describing, in a pun, Shylock’s house as a “pent-house”. This very much reflects the common view that Jews were a group of people purely to be made fun of and were not people whom you could take seriously. It is also in Act 4 Scene I (the court scene) that we really see the Anti-Semitic views of Gratiano as he leads other people and Christians around him in shouting out insults such as “harsh Jew” and “inexecrable dog”.
Another strong Christian character is that of Portia, one of only two Christian women in the play. However, she also appears to be one of the few who are not prejudiced towards everyone who is different from them. When she encounters the Prince of Morocco who tries to figure out the correct casket that will win her hand in marriage she is as courteous to him as she is with all of the other characters. She exclaims that she does not mind his dark skin by saying that he is “as fair as any comer I have looked on yet for my affection”; this shows that she has no prejudice towards him, regardless of the colour of his skin.
However, another side to Portia that we see as the play progresses is the ruthless, calculating side. In Act 4 Scene I we see how she can twist words and be merciless when she feels she needs to be, in order to save the ones she, or her husband Bassanio, love. After she says to Shylock that if he sheds “one drop of Christian blood” then he has broken the bond and gone against the law. Portia shows no mercy towards him and continues to punish him further by saying that, not only does he receive no money or flesh but that he must give up all of his possessions and that the punishment for his crime, plotting to kill a Venetian, is death.
He must “beg mercy of the Duke” in order to save his own life. Throughout this whole scene we see another side of Portia that is ruthless, cunning, and merciless. We maybe assume that this is because she feels that she can act like this, only when dressed like a man It would be likely that, because the majority of the Christian characters are very anti-Semitic that it is hard, even impossible, to find one who appears to not be. However, we see many unprejudiced traits in the character of Lorenzo. His marriage to Jessica, however, does appear to be rushed and hasty; she even changes her religion in order to marry him.
However, she feels the need to “become a Christian” in order to become “a loving wife”. Another reason we see Lorenzo as being an honourable character is the trust the others put in him. Portia even trusts him with the “husbandry and manage” of her house while she is away. As she is a wealthy woman it would be wise to suggest that she would not trust someone foolish with her house and belongings, thus enforcing our opinion that Lorenzo is not a bad man. Although, having said this it is impossible to ignore the amount of importance he places on his father-in-law’s wealth.
He becomes especially pleased when he realises that Shylock’s fortune is now his and Jessica’s, something we would have thought wouldn’t matter to someone who professes that he loves “her heartily”. It is impossible to say whether Shylock is his own cause for misery, or whether it is caused by the Christians who surround and torment his life. However, it is easy to see that the Christians, as a whole, are very prejudiced towards those different from themselves. They are very ‘two faced’, showing lots of support for each other, but unlimited hatred towards the Jews they make use of.