Tag Archives: Themes

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;.

Henrik Ibsen: Themes and Ideas

24 May

Known as the “Father of Drama” (“Henrik Ibsen.” Moonstruck Drama Bookstore), playwright Henrik Ibsen has produced many plays, which as a whole represent the evolution of drama. Ibsen’s writing life can be broken down into different periods. In his early days of writing, his plays were more open and romanticized. Initially, his plays were even tinged with a bit of depression, of which can be seen in the plays A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. This is because Ibsen had endured a “dark” phase, going through depression and even thoughts of suicide. His work then started to become more comical and favorable by audiences. He especially applied mysticism to a lot of his works and his characters were often rebels, as can be seen in Brand and Peer Grynt.

Ibsen then started to adapt his themes, concentrating them more on Man vs. Society. At this point, he had left romanticism aside and started focusing on the political and social problems of society. His works started depicting more elements of realism, and he became known as a naturalistic, even political playwright. He gave the medium of drama substance, dragging it out of its superficial entertainment purposes, and his own opinions of society leaked into his work. Ibsen applied what was called the “principle of uncertainty”, in which dramatic monologues, and consequently, characters’ thoughts were less exposed, thrusting the audience upon their feet and forcing them to develop their own interpretations.

By this time, his work had begun receiving a lot of criticism and controversy, for he was revealing aspects of society that were not meant to be revealed. During a period of time that he called the “Golden Age”, he had reached the peak of his societal influence. During this time, he produced plays such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. A Doll’s House had a feministic focus and criticized gender roles in Victorian marriages. Other themes include women’s suffrage, religious intolerance (responded to by Oeuvre), class struggle and stereotypes. Ibsen’s characters were faced with self-realization and portrayed the clash between the individual and societal pressures.

Ibsen had repeatedly changed and experimented with different ideas in plays. His application of realism was even adopted by others, such as Chekhov. He had completely changed the structure of dramatic techniques, paving the way for modern drama.
“Henrik Ibsen.” Imagi-nation.com. Web. 20 May 2011. <http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc5.htm&gt;.

“Henrik Ibsen.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2010): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition. EBSCO. Web. 24 May 2011.

Esslin, Martin. “Ibsen and Modern Drama.” DISCovering Authors. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 24 May 2011.

The Mobility of Social Class

14 Apr

George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion comprises various topics and themes. The most dominant and obvious, however, is concerned with social class, particularly class distinctions. Through his use of different characters, Shaw clearly presents the distinction between different classes. Throughout the play, he represents the different factors that drive the wedge between classes, which include language, appearances, decorum, education and wealth. The satire mainly lies in the factor of language, as the play is centered on the fact (or theme) that simply changing one’s way of speaking or accent enables class mobility. Higgins, the professor of phonetics (and one of the protagonists of the play) believes wagers that he can turn Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl, into a lady within six months, merely by working on her speech.

“You have no idea how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and changer her into a quite different human being by creating a new speech for her. It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul,” says Higgins to his mother (3. 223-224).

Thus, one can sense the folly Shaw is presenting with class distinctions, and that they can be based on the most superficial, negligible things. This is especially reinforced by Higgins’s lighthearted, experimental attitude towards this project, which he treats as a “bet”. Shaw even goes further to reveal that intra-class distinctions are just as existent as inter-class distinctions. This can be represented by the Enysford Hills, who he represents as the “genteel” poor. They may have the social etiquette and appearances of the middle class, but in terms of wealth, they are more like Eliza. Hence, they represent the “lower middle class”.

Today, such class distinctions still exist. In the United States, there are so many different opinions of the social strata that are present. Some believe in the “three-class theory”, which includes the rich, middle class and the poor. Others believe that many more social strata exist, particularly within classes. Nonetheless, unlike Shaw’s play, class mobility in the States, and probably most other countries, is not as easy or enabled by something as simple as changing your manner of speaking. In other words, society is not as easily “fooled” by shallow things such as appearances and speech as Shaw’s society is by Eliza. In the U.S., class distinctions are more fixed, based more on income, the family you are born into and education. When a people are born into lower class families, they are often stuck in those conditions, as they are more limited in wealth, and therefore, education. Of course, there are countless stories of people born into poor families who become successful and manage to get quality education, but one cannot simply ignore their background and the family in which they have been raised. The reality is that it requires much more work and yearning to transform to a higher class, at least, more than the few months that it took Eliza to develop her speech.