The Hypocrisy of Christianity

24 Oct

Is the play encouraging anti-semitic behaviour or is it designed to highlight the anti-semitic sentiments of society in order to encourage change?

To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will

feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and

hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,

mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted

my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine

enemies—and what’s his reason? 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? And if you wrong us,

shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest,

we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a

Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a

Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance

be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy

you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard

but I will better the instruction.

Determining the writer’s intent for a certain text is never an easy task, especially for one such as Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, was written in a time when anti-Semitism was highly abundant, especially in plays. This play, however, is different because it does not present the Jewish character, Shylock, as entirely villainous. Throughout the play, Shylock is constantly justifying his vengeful behavior and in doing so, exposes the faults of Christianity as well. Thus, the play is merely being realistic, demonstrating the behavior that took place during Shakespeare’s time.

In Act 3, Scene 1, we are provided with Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, or “plea for human tolerance”1 as some might say, in which he is defending his race and exposing the hypocrisy of Christianity (3.1.49-69). The first line of the passage, where Shylock says about taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh, “…if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge”(49-50), demonstrates his vengeful behavior. At first, this appears to be a ridiculous reason to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh, but as the passage continues, Shylock justifies his position, listing all the ways in which Antonio has wronged him.

In frankly stating, “…and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”(54) Shylock accuses Antonio of being anti-Semitic. From lines 54 to 63, Shylock draws parallels between Christians and Jews, stressing that Jews have “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions”, the components of man.

The last few lines of the passage are even more significant, as they bring to light the flaws of Christianity. Shylock claims that his villainous and murderous behavior is learned “by Christian example”(67). Shakespeare’s use of the word “humility”(65) also implies that the Christians are hypocrites, as they usually accept wrongs with humility rather than seeking revenge.

Other key scenes in the play also demonstrate Christian hypocrisy if analyzed in-depth. In Act 4, Scene 1, Portia gives a grandiloquent and poetic speech about mercy to Shylock, who lacks it as he adamantly wants his pound of flesh from Antonio. However, by the end of the scene, Portia is certainly lacking in mercy when she strips Shylock of everything, including his dignity. One can start to see a recurring idea that Shakespeare is presenting to the audience, as he reveals the true nature of Christians. Hence, the theme: the hypocrisy of Christianity can be formed.

This passage is written in prose, as it lacks a consistent rhythm. While one would expect such a dramatic and emotive passage to be in verse, we must not forget the character that is narrating it. Characters of lower class adopt prose, and if we once again evaluate the play in-context, it is no surprise that the Jew’s speech is in prose. Although one would think that Shakespeare’s intent here was to portray Jews negatively, if we dig deeper, we can find other reasons for selecting prose.

Firstly, Shakespeare often uses prose for speeches in his texts, and in this case, it makes what Shylock discusses more sincere, serious and spontaneous, rather than calculated and poetic. Secondly, the fact that it is not written in verse does not detract from its emotional punch. When the passage gets down to the rhetorical questions particularly, the audience cannot help but feel sympathy and compassion for Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice highlights the anti-Semitic sentiments of the society in which Shakespeare was surrounded. But whether this was done to encourage change or not is hard to determine, as the play must be assessed in the context of when it was written. Analyzing the play in the present, it can be easily suggested that Shakespeare was encouraging change, but if this were really his intention, one would expect a lot more controversy to take place at the time it was published. Nevertheless, the play does not encourage anti-Semitic behavior, because while it does portray anti-Semitism, it also exposes the flaws or hypocrisy of Christianity.
1. Delahoyde, Dr. Michael. “The Merchant of Venice.” Washington State University. Web. <http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/shakespeare/merchant3.html&gt;.

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