Thursday, May 15, 2014


The Merchant of Venice: A Comedy with No Laughs

Things that are written 100s of years ago can often lose or change meaning over time. This can be caused by many factors. The reader, the critic, the time period, and the context are all elements that can change the meaning or interpretation of a piece of literature every time it is read. The works of William Shakespeare are particularly susceptible to various interpretations because of their complexity and rich use of language. One particular example is The Merchant of Venice, a dark comedy about the downfalls of a Jew and the love of a friend in Venice. When written, Shakespeare lived in an Anti-Jew society that was able to laugh at the misfortunes of the Jew, Shylock, in the play. However in today's more understanding world, Shylock's story can be seen as tragic, not comedic. Because of this, the story of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is no longer a dark comedy, but a huge tragedy when looked at in today's world.
In Elizabethan Europe, Jews were seen as the lowest class of society, and were discriminated against to extreme degrees. Around the 1000s Jews lived in Europe amongst everyone else,and did not live in ghettos. A Jew was often wealthy, and many became money lenders in their societies. Because of their jobs, they often had to be their own debt collectors as well. This led to much resentment against them, and the views on Jews were starting to turn negative. As time went on, these views became more religious. As it is stated by Jami Rogers, "In the late 12th century, preparation for the Third Crusade brought a heightened level of anti-Jewish sentiment. Anti-Semitic violence culminated in two massacres, one at the coronation of Richard I in 1189, when 30 Jews were killed, and the other in 1190 in the city of York, when 150 Jews were massacred." (Rogers 2) The resentment of activity by a small concentrated amount of Jews began to spread to the religious group as a whole as the Third Crusade approached.
Jews were also extradited from society together, much like black people in early America. Jews were seen as inferior to other religions, mainly Christians. They were even seen as less than human to an extent. Jews were regularly insulted, mistreated, and all around hated all because of there religion. This anti-Jew nature brought about many laws against them, such as if a man in debt dies, his family does not have to pay off the Jew. This and many other laws were forged in order to lessen the Jew's power in society. As Mr. Stirling says;"It is clear that the Jews were persecuted, demonized, and murdered in England up until the expulsion of 1290. That persecution was based on both religious grounds and upon the position that the Jews held in the financial structure of the society."(Stirling 1) Jews were also extradited from society together, much like black people in early America. Jews were seen as inferior to other religions, mainly Christians. They were even seen as less than human to an extent. These laws ultimately culminated in the banishment of Jews from all of England in 1290, only 15 years after they were banned from lending money. As Rogers further explains, "After the Expulsion, the English view of Jews began to be formed by several myths that grew in popularity through the centuries." (Rogers 2) These myths included their lust for ritual murder, their greed, and their love for money. Even though Shakespeare never met a Jew in his life because of their banishment, their history and myths provided the context for what many consider the main aspect of the play.
The Merchant of Venice reflects the context in which it was written in many ways. In The Merchant of Venice Jews were separated from the main part of society, lived in ghettos, were gravely mistreated and hated, and lived out some of the biggest stereotypes that were laid upon their kind. Like in real life the Jews in the play live in a ghetto, separated from the rest of society. This was common in many towns around Europe. If the Jews were not completely banished from the country, they were segregated into their own little towns so that the "normal" citizens did not have to interact with them on a regular bases. The character of Shylock is also greatly based on context. Because Shakespeare never met a Jew, he based the character on many myth's. As Kirschbaum says, "Shakespeare's source for Shylock was not life but literature and folklore. In them the Jew was typed as an anti-Christian, usurious, cruel monster. This is the stereotyped figure which Shakespeare utilized for Shylock." (Kirschbaum 2) During the time, Jews were seen as money hungry mongrels, willing to do anything for wealth. Throughout the play Shylock displays these qualities, crying over his loss of wealth every some some is taken away from him. He also tries to commit a "ritualistic murder", an action linked to Jews in that period.
Shylock can be seen as greedy, grumpy, and always worrying about his money, all Jewish stereotypes. He definitely does not shy away from some of the stereotypes, even to the point of embracing some of them. This was most likely a decision made by Shakespeare in order to familiarize the character to his audience. They would most likely not understand or enjoy a Jewish character that did not have any of the qualities that they associated with Jews. Also throughout the play, Shylock is mistreated, much like in real life. For example, in Act 1, Scene 3, Antonio says, "mark you this Bassanio, The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." (I.iii.93-94) He is calling Shylock evil, comparing him to the devil and his ability to manipulate the bible to prove his points. The insults do not stop here. Later in the play, Gratiano calls Shylock an "inexecrable dog."(IV.i.128) He is saying that Shylock is no more than an animal in the wild, a true insult. These are just two examples of the many insults Shylock faces in the play all because of his religion. These insults show the influence of context on the play because in real life during this period Jews were exposed to this same verbal abuse, and much worse. Shakespeare put the insults in the play because some members of the audience would likely insult a Jew the same way if they saw ever one. The Merchant of Venice reflects almost every aspect of society at the time, whether it be the Jews segregation, stereotypes placed on Jews, or abuse of Jews in every way. But even with this great amount context behind the play, some critics still think the play uses the context as a subplot, and that the main story of the play is a romantic comedy.
The downfall of Shylock is sometimes seen as a subplot to the main story of love and hardships between two young Christians. The issue between Antonio and Shylock only arises because Bassanio, Antonio's young friend, needs money in order to go and win the hand of a young bride to be, Portia. After he has won her hand in marriage, much confusion and "comedy" follow as Bassanio tries to get Antonio out of his bond with Shylock. The "comedic elements" of the play come near the end, after Portia has dressed as a man and saved Antonio. Still dresses as a man, she asks for a reward from Bassanio. Portia tells Bassanio, "That 'scuse serves many men to save their gifts, An if your wife be not a madwoman, And know how well I have deserved the ring, She would not hold out enemy forever, For giving it to me. Well peace be with you. ( IV.i.441-445) This is seen as comedic because Portia is convincing Bassanio to give a stranger the ring that she herself made him promise to never give up. This leads to a "comedic" conversation and resolution about love at the end of the play. Many people see this love story as the main plot of the play, and because it is a comedic romance, the play was and is sometimes still classified as a "romantic comedy" and not a tragedy. One such critic is Samuel Ajzenstat, who still sees and appreciates the romantic comedy overtone of the play. In his criticism entitled The Ubiquity of Contract in The Merchant of Venice, he states,
"But the rejection of idealistic account does not make The Merchant a
cynical play. It remains a romantic comedy because it shows that love
does not require the myth of its invulnerability and all-conquering po-
wer to remain meaningful both in the her-and-now and as a pointer to
something beyond it." (Ajzenstat 262)
Ajzenstat says the play is still a comedy because its main story is about true love is not shown by some of the myths of invulnerability, but by staying truthful to your significant other. Portia and Bassanio do this by confessing their mistakes and deceptions at the end of the play, resolving the play in happiness for those two much like all of Shakespeare's comedies. Modern renditions of the play have even given it a "comic gloss", focusing more on the love story and adding jokes to make the play more lighthearted. Many feel that the story of Shylock was put into the play as a way to keep the play from getting too "sweet" because every one of Shakespeare's plays has some "dark" aspect to it. When you look up the plays genre, it is also classified under the comedy category. But even with these changes, some critic's show a completely different view on the play, downplaying its comedic elements.
Today, some critics no longer see The Merchant of Venice as a comedy of any sort, but as the tragedy of Shylock the Jew. Much of the play revolves around Shylock, who is a successful money lender in Venice until he gets into a bond with the Merchant Antonio. By the end of the play, Shylock is a man broken and with nothing of his own. He has lost his religion, his estate, and his daughter in what is a truly tragic downfall. Despite these qualities of the play, when it was written it was seen as a comedy because of the context it was written in. The anti-Jew society was able to laugh at the misfortunes of the Jew, applauding his failure in taking a Christian's life. The people were able to laugh at the misfortunes of a character that had a religion they were taught to hate. This led the play to be seen as a dark comedy during Elizabethan times. However, recent interpretations of the play by critics have noted the play as being more tragic than comedic, mostly because we are not in an anti-Jew society today. Today's society, especially in America, is more understanding. We all come from different backgrounds, and the majority of us can understand the religions and practices of others, and don't hate them because of what they do or worship. One of these critics, Alvin Klein says that "The play is not a comedic read, and it is rarely played for laughs," (Klein 1) He is noting that audiences do not laugh anymore when reading or watching the play. He also states, "It is a disconnected, troubling, irreconcilable play that proves festival audiences want to think and argue." (Klein 4)
Klein once again notes the audience that is interpreting the play. He says that today's society isn't one that feeds on what is given to them like the theater goers of old. Today's audience digest and think about the play, instead of mindlessly laugh at Shylock's misfortunes. This has lead many new critics to classify this play under "tragedy" or some, such as Leo Kirschbaum, classify it as a "tragicomedy." (Kirschbaum 1) These critics are correct in classifying it as a tragedy. The story of Shylock seems a take a major leading role in the play. It is referred to and seen more than the romance scenes, and the main plot of the play is the interaction between Shylock and Antonio. The comedic elements do now arise enough to classify it as a dark comedy. Instead, the tragic elements are ubiquitous, with someone always mentioning the bond between the merchant and the bondsman. The story of Shylock is clearly the main plot of the play, and to say that romantic-comedic elements that show up very scarcely throughout the play are the main story would be ridiculous When it was written, audiences were amused by the falling of the Jew. They hated Jews in every way and would do anything to see a Jew fail in life. But in today's world the play is seen as a disgusting tragedy full of wrongful mistreatment, allowing it to be labeled as such because it no longer provides laughs to the audience or the reader.
When first debuted to the world in Elizabethan England, The Merchant of Venice was a play that the audience saw as comedic. They were able to laugh at a crazy love story, and more importantly they were able to laugh at the downfall of a hated Jew, Shylock. This laughter was considered OK because that the time, Jews were evil, they were the worst things walking the Earth according to the general public, and the play was written in that context. But in today's more understanding and less prejudice world, much debate has come over the play's comedic value. Because we know longer live in a Jew hating world for the most part, the play is now seen as tragedy by many because of Shylock's terrible downfall in the story. Other critics still see it as a sort of comedy, but it is clear that the laugh factor in the play is now non-existent. This play has become a prime example to show that as the context in which a work of literature is read changes, so can its interpretations and meanings.
Works Cited
- Ajzenstat, Samuel "The Ubiquity of Contract in The Merchant of Venice" Philosophy and Literature - Volume 21, Number 2, October 1997, pp. 262-278 The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Kirschbaum, Leo. "Shylock in the City of God." Wayne State University Press (1962): 7-32. Literature Resource Center. LEO. New York Public Library, New York. Keyword: Shakespeare.
- Klein, Alvin. "The Arguable Comedy in Merchant of Venice." The New York Times 5 Nov. 2000, sec. NJ11. Literature Resource Center. LEO. New York Public Library, New York. 20 Nov. 2006. Keyword: Shakespeare.
- Rogers, Jami. "The Merchant of Venice." PBS. 1997. 12 Nov. 2006 .
- Stirling, Grant. "Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: The Question of Shylock." February 1997. 12 Jan. 2007
- Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: SparkNotes, 2003.

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