Sample Questions

1. Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Semitic play?

Discuss how all work dealing with the question of anti-Semitism must be viewed in the light of the tragedy of the Holocaust. It is therefore difficult to write about the question without making certain assumptions about your reader's viewpoint.

It is undeniable that Shakespeare makes a large number of jokes during the play at the expense of Jews. We cannot ignore these and recast Shakespeare as a modern, politically correct playwright. However, despite the widespread anti-Semitism of his time reflected in the play (perhaps written in for the benefit of the audience and with Marlowe's play in mind), it is fair to say that Shylock is presented by the bard as a multi-faceted individual and given shades of sympathy as well as the more obvious vulgar traits.

It may be worth considering whether it be wiser simply to remove the play from the canon until we can cope with the fact that it is prejudiced without prejudicing our own arguments. Certainly, answering this question in an exam would seem to be academic suicide. Where righteous opinion and disgust at an author's subject matter begin to intrude on a reading of a play, logical and serious criticism is likely to go out of the metaphorical window. If one wishes to answer this question, then one must admit that the answer is a firm "Yes", but one with footnotes and a lot of historical context.

2. Is Shylock an heroic character?

Shylock is the most powerful character in the play. You may forget the Christians, but Shylock will remain with you (so much so that his name has become part of the language). Describe quite why he is such a prepossessing figure. Is he really evil, or does he just live by a different set of rules to the people whose city he inhabits. Is his over-protectiveness towards Jessica excessive, or justified, considering her later actions?

Think about how the play treats persecution. Is Shylock merely gaining a form of revenge for years of ill treatment? Is Shylock actually the victor, coming out of the play as having left his mark upon those Christians who would previously only ridicule him?

Does Shylock benefit from the weakness of Antonio and Bassanio as characters? They are both rather insubstantial figures whose lives are almost totally outside our sphere of interest in the play. Compare the Jew with Malvolio in Twelfth Night - another memorably unpleasant figure in Shakespearean comedy. As we begin to find the humour of Shakespeare's plays less amusing (as certain references are lost on many of us, ruining many of his best puns) there is certainly a temptation to reconstruct them to our own design and raise the unpleasant characters from anti-hero to hero (even Iago in Othello is being recast as a justified cynic by some!). Is a production of The Merchant of Venice with Shylock coming out as not only the most interesting character but also the moral victor actually true to Shakespeare at all and does it need to be?

3. How does The Merchant of Venice treat the subject of 'mercy'?

Mercy is a particularly Christian moral value. In few other religions, except, perhaps, Buddhism, is the quality of forgiveness so highly judged. Shylock's unwillingness to grant his adversaries mercy is one of the play's central themes. Does Shakespeare intend to paint the Christians as hypocrites whose inability to show mercy to Shylock and the other foreigners whose trade has brought them wealth brings on the trials depicted in The Merchant of Venice?

Think about the ways in which Shylock conforms to the laws of the Old Testament. He is true to them to the letter, even quoting the Bible's recognition of money lending at one point. To what extent do the Christians similarly follow their own Testament? Even if we do not agree with Shylock's bloodthirsty interpretation of the law, perhaps we may decide that it is he who is morally superior to the weak Christians.

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