Stereotypes in Merchant of Venice, Act I

(Posted for Darya Erenburg)

While reading the first act in The Merchant of Venice, I noticed Shakespeare’s stereotypical descriptions of certain cultures. The stereotypes, however, don’t match up with those of today’s cultural generalizations. For example, when Portia and Nerissa were discussing the suitors that had made their visit earlier, she mentioned how the German drank too much (which is now stereotypical of mostly Irish and Russian folk). She described the Neopolitan count as being too fond of his horse, the Palatine count as being too serious for her taste, and the Englishman as being too dull-minded to know any other romantic languages. I am personally not sure about the Neopolitan, Palatine and Englishman stereotypes, but in Act 1, Scene 3, when Shylock is introduced, the Jewish stereotype is pretty offensive in today’s culture. Shylock is very exact, in mind and speech. He thinks the deal through out loud, often repeating what Bassanio and Antonio say. He appears to have an accent, different from the rest of the characters in the play by the way he says “well?” after each repeated statement at the beginning of Scene 3. He is also very proud of his Jewish heritage, by the way he refers to his nation as “sacred” (1.3.42), and he holds a grudge over Antonio for the names he had called him; “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/ And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine” (1.3.109-110). He is harsh but fair in his business dealings, and agrees to lend the money to Bassanio in return for the exact sum of money, or a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock also claims that Antonio had cursed and spat on his Jewish heritage in the past, which is not unusual for people to do in the present day, especially Christians. Towards the end of the third scene, when Shylock exits the stage, Antonio says to Bassanio that Shylock has become more generous, almost as though he has turned Christian. The generalization of the present day states that most Christians tend to believe that they are somehow more knowledgeable about God and heaven and the best way to get there, all the time hoping to convert more people into Christianity. It appears that Jews and people of other religions are more accepting of religions that are not their own, while at the same time remaining comfortable and confident with their own beliefs. I also noticed that in verbally stating what unfair actions have been committed against Shylock, and Antonio’s thoughts about his supposedly righteous way of behaving towards a Jew, Shakespeare is able to make fun of the Christian beliefs as well, at least towards other religions. I find this fascinating, in terms of the courage it must’ve taken on Shakespeare’s part to laugh at the Jewish and Christian religions by being so brutally correct in their beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions. Some of the ostensible stereotypes of the Elizabethan era stayed true to the present, and I marvel at how easily Shakespeare had written of them in his day, when some of us still cringe at the thought of making fun of another’s beliefs even today.
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One thought on “Stereotypes in Merchant of Venice, Act I

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    Darya models a good approach here–to look at elements of the world of Shakespeare (or his plays) and ask the question of how they reflect (or don't) attitudes and ideas within our own world. This works particularly well in Merchant, where we have a kind of prejudice that is still with us–one of the reasons this play continues to be controversial.

    Reply

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