The Foreign

Shylock is a foreigner in Venice and is derided for being so. It is not surprising that he is so filled with anger - he is ridiculed in the street, shamed for doing his job, and even the laws are stacked against him, as we see at the end of the play. Venice was founded on the trade of foreigners. It is therefore an apt setting for a play that, in some ways, reveals the narrow- mindedness and xenophobia of the supposedly merciful Christian society. It is arguable that had the Christians showed more mercy to Shylock, he would have showed more to Antonio in the court scene.

Bassanio uses Shylock as the source of the money he needs to marry Portia. He is therefore recognizing the power of money - without it he would be unable to tie himself to the woman he loves. Shylock is bullied by Bassanio and his cohorts. It therefore seems unreasonable that he should expect Shylock to loan him money without taking anything in return. It is obvious that it is more Shylock's foreignness that is resented by the Christians than his particular actions.

Shylock is by far the most powerful male character in the play. Bassanio is a foppish playboy and Antonio a humourless, sexually ambiguous wimp. Only Portia comes near him as a character. The Old Testament world which Shylock lives in commands him to set a great deal by the word of the law. Some would claim that this is his only real sin in the play. More convincing, though, we might admit that he commits an unnerving number of deadly sins: avarice, envy, pride, and - crucially - wrath. In the play, Shylock deserves everything he gets - he has chosen to play a rather suspect kind of hardball with justice. However, that this is an unfair portrait of a Jew is unquestionable. The risk for the critic and student of the play is to prejudice a discussion of the play with disgust at Shakespeare's decision to ridicule a Jew and read it inaccurately as a result.


Antonio and Shylock are doubled throughout the play. At the beginning, Antonio is a dispirited Christian; at the end, Shylock is a dispirited Christian. At the beginning, Shylock is a wealthy Jew; at the end, Antonio is wealthy and looking after Shylock's money. Shylock is emasculated by the Christians; Antonio is emasculated by his own total lack of sexuality. The references to sheep further stress the doubling: they are always, however, in Shylock's favour. Whilst the victory at the end might seem to be Antonio's, he is left just as lonely and tied to the ups and downs of his economic situation as Shylock.


Many of Shakespeare's plays end with marriage as the 'happy ending'. Shakespeare seems to see marriage as the ultimate aim of all his characters. It is those characters that are not married who come off worse in this play - Shylock and Antonio. Portia has to give up everything she is and has when she marries Bassanio. The institution of marriage is therefore an ultimately anti-feminist concept. Shakespeare is equating happiness and resolution with the crushing of the feminist spirit. In her marriage to Lorenzo, Jessica has to give up her faith and sever her links from her parents - stealing from her father and giving away her mother's ring. Marriage is a series of defeats for the women in this play.

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