Dr. Rabi Narayana Samantaray

Dept. of English, Aeronautics College, (Berhampur University), Odisha
Email: [email protected]


William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as a sixteenth century English drama incorporates many elements of cosmopolitanism and has a universal appeal. The title of the play is suggestive of the broader themes that Shakespeare wishes to encompass within the texture of his play. The play deals with the complex Christian-Jew antagonism in the medieval Europe and the typical renaissance spirit of expansionism beyond the national territory. During the late thirteenth century, Venice was the most prosperous city in Europe. A city built upon the fear of barbarian invasion was to be heralded as the most dazzlingly beautiful city in the world. While the Florentines were regarded as great thinkers, the Venetians are regarded as great performers. The London of Shakespeare’s time bears striking similarities to the Venice where he set both his plays that specifically deal with the “other”— Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Like Venice, London was a thriving city whose wealth and commerce brought the whole world to its door, and it was also a city known for the strength of its law. But beyond the similarity of their flourishing economies and cultures, London and Venice were also cities where religious differences could prove life-threatening. Since its inception, cosmopolitanism has been a category marked by a need to negotiate with “others” and has reflected tensions between local and supra-local realities and between particularism and universalism. Historically, cosmopolitanism has mirrored the ideologies of different periods and modes of integration to larger political and global realities. The paper aims at reflecting on the cosmopolitan aspects of the play which contribute to its uniqueness.

Keywords: Cosmopolitanism, Universalism, Jewishness, Renaissance, Anti-semitism

The concept of cosmopolitanism has undergone a sea change with the passage of time and it has acquired different dimensions in course of time. Judged from the point of view of literature, cosmopolitanism is an integral part of world literature. Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. The politics of the cosmos is the universal rational politics on the moral presupposition that there is a universal idea of mankind as the essence of the human being. While globalization is an almost tangible and concrete phenomenon, cosmopolitanism is much more conceptual. There is, however, a mutual dependence between the two. Shakespeare has amply demonstrated his cosmopolitan outlook in most of his plays. As a writer, he does not confine the “locale” of his plays to England alone. He writes about the whole world as he is too much cosmopolitan in his attitude. He was probably preoccupied with the Jewish themes of the medieval Europe while imagining the plot of The Merchant of Venice. During the time in which Shakespeare was writing, Venice was one of the most important sovereign states in Italy. In 1600 its area and population size was comparable to London’s and, due to its key importance in the maritime traffic in the Mediterranean, it constituted also a melting pot of different cultures attracting, amongst others, Turks, Greeks, Spaniards, Jews, Moors and, of course, Englishmen. Venice was viewed by London as a competitor in trade. Two Charters issued in 1592 and 1600 gave the monopoly of the trades between England and Venice to a group of London merchants. Therefore, it is likely that Shakespeare wrote his two plays set in Venice, The Merchant of Venice and Othello in a period when the English were greatly interested in the Italian republic. It is essential to consider the play in the context of the time in which it was written and think about early modern cultural attitudes towards Jewishness. Shakespeare’s literary   contemporaries, such as John Donne, clearly believed the anti-Semitic propaganda around them and contributed to it themselves. It was popularly held that Jews ritually murdered Christians to drink their blood and achieve salvation. Christopher Marlowe’s theatrical depiction of Jewishness in The Jew of Malta, performed regularly in the early 1590s, is an obvious influence on the composition of The Merchant of Venice. As some accounts show, the English travelers to Venice, during the Renaissance were awestruck with the uniqueness of a city resting on a multitude of islands. These trade routes and the massive presence of foreigners on the territory ensured that Venice was regularly supplied with goods and products from across the globe. The city could rightfully be regarded as the ‘marketplace’ of the world, as well as, ‘a summary of the universe, because there is nothing originating in any far-off country but it is found in abundance in this city’. In Venice one could find spices imported from Egypt; silk fabrics from Byzantium; western woollens passing through towards the East; Italian raw materials like cotton, silk and glass; and an abundance of food, such as grain, meat and cheese. In addition to its status as a mercantile hub, Venice also operated a major banking system, which confirmed its status as the richest and most abundant city in the world. The city received profits not only through trades but also through very heavy taxation. Venetians were also sustained by the huge revenue which derived from the Jewish community practising usury. The political independence of Venice was also a source of pride: a ‘free’ city-state with its own rules and statues, not subject to the restrictive laws of an empire. Venice was liberal and neutral in its dealings with foreign countries, representing a strong commercial power.

In these conditions, multi-culturalism flourished: people from any country or creed were tolerated, as long as they respected the Venetian law. Some foreigners were temporary visitors, others were absorbed by the Venetians, and others united in big communities in order to retain their cultural identity. It was admired for its location at the centre of European civilization – the Jerusalem of Christendom, yet viewed with suspicion as geographically, it was somewhat displaced towards the East. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the other who is isolated and humiliated, but he dominates the stage from the moment he is first introduced. The Venetians in the play almost uniformly express extreme intolerance of Shylock and the other Jews in Venice. In fact, the exclusion of these “Others” seems to be a fundamental part of the social bonds that cement the Venetian Christians together. We observe from the beginning that Antonio has been abusing Shylock for no other reasons than his being a Jewish moneylender: “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,/And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,/ And all for use of that which is mine own”(I,iii).And Shylock , inspite of that, offers to lend him the money he wants at no interest except for a pound of flesh “ in a merry sport”. Later on ,he puts forward in a quite moving speech, the reasons why he hates Antonio so much: “he hath disgrac’d me, and hinder’d me half a million, laugh’d at my losses, mock’d 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? (III,i). He goes on defending himself by showing his humanity, and claiming that he does not deserve the harsh treatment he receives on the mere basis that he is a Jew. It is appropriate to argue that Shakespeare himself shares his characters’ attitude that the Jews are naturally malicious and inferior to Christians because of Shylock’s ultimate refusal to show any mercy at all. John Palmer states that it is Shakespeare’s art in portraying Shylock as a real man with flesh and blood that makes the Jew such a dominant figure. Shakespeare aimed to make people laugh by writing “a comedy about a strange Jew involved in a grotesque story about a pound of flesh” (114). However, through his representation of his antagonist “Shakespeare has humanised him to such good purpose that this comic Jew has become, for many brilliant and sensitive critics, a moving, almost tragic, figure” (114). Despite the initial impression of a malicious moneylender, a closer analysis of Shylock’s nature reveals that he is a human being who is most of the time humiliated by the gentiles of Venice. Palmer points out that Shakespeare borrowed the story of The Merchant of Venice from various sources in which Shylock appears as a villain; yet as a poetic genius, “taking Shylock’s merry bond for a theme and accepting all the restrictions of the Elizabethan theatre, he expressed himself as freely and profoundly as possible” (115). Being an antagonist in a play already familiar to the Elizabethan audience restricts the actions of Shylock making his “behaviour in the play settled in advance” (Palmer 114). However, Shylock presented in Shakespeare’s play is more like a human being than a villain condemned for his wrongdoing in the earlier versions. Although the play is constructed as a comedy, the way Shakespeare depicts Shylock makes him “cease to be a comic character” (114). Beneath the comic representation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare reveals the kind of place the Jews occupied in Venice and how they were treated by the society in general. As it is suggested by Graham Midgley, being a Jew and the consciousness of being the other, have destructive effects on his personality since all he is and all he regards dear is  “alien to the society in which he has to live” (196). All the time he has to live with the reality that he is an outsider, “only tolerated but never accepted” (Midgley 196). Moreover, Midgley raises the point that “his being a Jew is not important itself: what is important is what being a Jew has done to his personality” (196). Shylock’s Jewish nature makes him the other in Venice, which means constant disgrace and humiliation that he has to suffer. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s otherness is highlighted by the clear division of characters into two major distinctive and conflicting groups; the Jewish and the Christian circles. The former group consists of Shylock and the people who are closely related to him either by blood, like his daughter Jessica, or by status, like his servant Lancelot Gobbo, while the latter includes Antonio’s acquaintances who are Solanio, Salarino, Lorenzo and more importantly Bassanio. Through Shylock’s interaction with Antonio, his otherness as a moneylender and a Jew is revealed. The relationship between Shylock and Jessica, on the other hand, reflects Shylock’s otherness in his domestic life. The way Shakespeare introduces Shylock in the play indicates the function he fulfils in the society as the source of money. It also reflects the mutual hatred that dominates the relationship between the Jew and the Christian gentry. Because he does not have any financial means to support his friend Bassanio, Antonio has no alternative but to ask Shylock, the usurer, to lend him “three thousand ducats,” which is the amount Bassanio needs to woo Portia (MV 1.3.1). Being a usurer, quite naturally, Shylock is very much money oriented, so he questions Antonio’s reliability to sign the bond as he does not want to waste his money. Until the moment he faces Antonio, the discussion about the bond remains only as a business deal. However, as soon as the Jew meets Antonio, Shylock becomes arrogant because Antonio had mistreated him several times in the past: “many a time and oft / In the Rialto you rated me / About my monies and my usances” (MV 1.3.98-100). One reason why he hates Antonio is his being a Christian, but the real source of his hatred is the fact that Antonio spoiled Shylock’s business by lending money without charging any interest. Because Antonio, “neither lend[s] nor borrow[s] by taking nor by giving of excess,” Shylock is filled with the desire of taking revenge (MV 1.3.53-54). He lends the money to the merchant on condition that Shylock will have “an equal pound / of your [Antonio’s] fair flesh” if he is not able to repay the money in three months (MV 1.3.142-143).  Rather than charging any interest, Shylock demands the merchant to risk his life.

The conflict between Shylock and the Christian characters is one of the manifestations of the racial stereotypes and anti-Semitism prevalent in the medieval Europe. The Christians view the Jews as “Christ killers”. Like most part of Europe, England severely restricted the rights of the Jews. In fact, Jews were banished completely from England in 1290 by king Edward I and were not officially allowed to return until 1655, when Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return. This exile was technically, in effect, during Shakespeare’s time. One of the reasons renaissance Christians disliked Jews was the willingness of the Jews to practise usury. There was a long tradition in classical and Christian moral thinking against usury. The other characters acknowledge that the law is on Shylock’s side, but they all expect him to show mercy, which he refuses to do. When, during the trial, Shylock asks Portia what could possibly compel him to be merciful, Portia’s long reply, beginning with the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained,” clarifies what is at stake in the argument (IV.i.179). Human beings should be merciful because God is merciful: mercy is an attribute of God himself and therefore greater than power, majesty, or law. Portia’s understanding of mercy is based on the way Christians in Shakespeare’s time understood the difference between the Old and New Testaments. According to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament, the Old Testament depicts God as requiring strict adherence to rules and exacting harsh punishments for those who stray. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of the law, portraying a God who forgives rather than punishes and offers salvation to those followers who forgive others. Thus, when Portia warns Shylock against pursuing the law without regard for mercy, she is promoting what Elizabethan Christians would have seen as a pro-Christian, anti-Jewish agenda. A sixteenth-century audience would not expect Shylock to exercise mercy—therefore, it is up to the Christians to do so. Once she has turned Shylock’s greatest weapon—the law—against him, Portia has the opportunity to give freely of the mercy for which she so beautifully advocates. Instead, she backs Shylock into a corner, where she strips him of his bond, his estate, and his dignity, forcing him to kneel and beg for mercy. Given that Antonio decides not to seize Shylock’s goods as punishment for conspiring against him, we might consider Antonio to be merciful. But we may also question whether it is merciful to return to Shylock half of his goods, only to take away his religion and his profession. By forcing Shylock to convert, Antonio disables him from practicing usury, which, according to Shylock’s reports, was Antonio’s primary reason for berating and spitting on him in public. Antonio’s compassion, then, seems to stem as much from self-interest as from concern for his fellow man. Mercy, as delivered in The Merchant of Venice, never manages to be as sweet, selfless, or full of grace as Portia presents it.

Throughout the play, Shylock claims that he is simply applying the lessons taught to him by his Christian neighbors; this claim becomes an integral part of both his character and his argument in court. In Shylock’s very first appearance, as he conspires to harm Antonio, his entire plan seems to be born of the insults and injuries Antonio has inflicted upon him in the past. As the play advances, and Shylock unveils more of his reasoning, the same idea rears its head over and over—he is simply applying what years of abuse have taught him. Responding to Salarino’s query of what good the pound of flesh will do him, Shylock responds, “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (III.i.60–61). Not all of Shylock’s actions can be blamed on poor teachings, and one could argue that Antonio understands his own culpability in his near execution. With the trial’s conclusion, Antonio demands that Shylock convert to Christianity, but inflicts no other punishment, despite the threats of fellow Christians like Gratiano. Antonio does not, as he has in the past, kick or spit on Shylock. Antonio, as well as the duke, effectively ends the conflict by starving it of the injustices it needs to continue. The realized Judaism and realized Christianity lying back of the property conflict in the drama present a clash of universal principles of the Old Testament against the New. The final triumph of the spirit that embodies in its prayer, the earnest petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” has given to this play the popularity it has always known. For the play as well as the individual must live for universal ends, else the virtue of each soon disappears and the memory of each is buried among the unmarked graves that swallow up the multitude.


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