The Merchant of Venice

Portia and Shylock
Portia and Shylock by Thomas Sully (1783–1872) via Wikipedia

The Merchant of Venice is a comedic play written by William Shakespeare from 1596-98. It touches on the modern themes of ethnic and religious discrimination with the character of the Jewish moneylender Shylock and also on sex-role stereotypes with the character Portia.

Shylock is a ruthless Jewish money-lender who  insists on receiving a previously agreed upon “pound of flesh” from the character Antonio, whose prospects have vanished. This forces Antonio to default on a loan given to him by Shylock.

Some critics suggest that Shakespeare paints a dangerous, anti-Semitic picture. Others defend Shakespeare, citing Shylock’s cutting speech as evidence that he presents not a one-dimensional but, rather, a complex human character:

I am a Jew: 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? (Act 3, Scene I).

Later, Shylock is outwitted by Portia disguised as a lawyer. After unsuccessfully appealing to Shylock’s humanity, Portia insists that he be allowed to remove Antonio’s flesh on the condition that not one drop of blood is carved from his body.

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; the words expressly are “a pound of flesh”.Take, then, thy bond. But, in the cutting it, if thou does shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate unto Venice (Act 4 Scene I).

Realizing he’s been beat, Shylock lightens up and the potentially grisly tale ends happily.

The fact that Portia is a woman points to Shakespeare’s progressiveness in the area of refuting sex-role stereotypes.

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