Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, is the most interesting one I’ve read thus far. As a Muslim living in America, I found myself relating to the Jewish character, Shylock. Although Shylock is seemingly depicted as merciless and crude, he can’t necessarily be blamed for his cruelty when one sees the way in which he is treated as a consequence of his religion.
The struggle between Christianity and Judaism in The Merchant of Venice is something that has been and is still relevant in every society. For example, in America today, there are many ignorant people who believe that all Muslims are terrorists who hate Americans. Obviously, this is a stereotype, but it seems that these stereotypes were no different in Venice at this time. Religious tolerance is something this world has been in need of for some time. This is why I was delighted to come across Dan Swindle’s article, titled “Shylock: A Hidden Hero”. Swindle analyzes the way “Shakespeare victimizes Shylock in order to form a hidden sympathy for the bereaved Jewish population”.
Swindle depicts this analysis through an explanation of Shakespeare’s additions to the original Shylock plot from a fourteenth century collection Il Pecorone, “The Simpleton” and The Jew of Malta, written by Shakespeare’s colleague, Christopher Marlowe. What I found most interesting about Swindle’s analysis is the background he gives behind the Jewish character, Barbas, in The Jew of Malta. Barbas says “As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights and kill sick people groaning under walls; sometimes I go about and poison wells…”. Barbas’s line is a reference to how Jews were accused of poisoning wells in the bubonic plague that swept across England. This racial profiling that the Jews have endured is absurd.
Swindle proves Shakespeare’s attempt of how he made Shylock a sympathetic character though various approaches. First, Shylock is introduced as being a simple man with religious differences. Then, Shakespeare gives Shylock extreme lines, but balances it out by provoking sympathy. This made me think about how Shylcock tells Antonio he despises him but then says that Antonio hates the Jewish nation, calls him names, and spits on him. If any one of us have endured the same thing then wouldn’t we also be fed up given that in this case specifically, it has been years of humiliation and degradation? Lastly, though Shakespeare wrote this play hundreds of years ago, there are lessons we could take from it in terms of today’s society. As Shylock said, “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?”.
We are all the same physically and mentally. We are capable of the same thoughts and beliefs. It is all about choice in what one individual thinks is right. We all have that power to choose, and we should be able to exercise it. In all, I admired Swindle’s take on The Merchant of Venice and thought he demonstrated Shylock’s sympathizing character perfectly. Unlike the other literary works, Shakespeare actually manages to make the 400 years of Jews’ depiction as conniving monsters into a victim who struggles for equality and mercy for not only himself, but the entire Jewish population.