The 1596 Merchant of Venice play seems to me to be nonsensical, filled with actions that make no sense, and it is extremely anti-Semitic. Contrary to what most people think, that it is only Shylock’s demand that the merchant of Venice, Antonio, fulfills his vow that he made to give Shylock a pound of his flesh near his heart if he is unable to repay his loan of 3,000 ducats that shows a Jew to be evil, since taking this much flesh would kill the man. Yes, this is more than outrageous. But this is not all. Every time Shylock is mentioned – yes, every time – whether he is present or not, a very derogatory statement is made about Jews. The play even has Shylock’s daughter’s suitor telling her that she will be sent to Hell for her ancestor’s killing Jesus unless she converts to Christianity. True, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Jews would have been based entirely on hearsay since neither he nor his audience would have met a Jew, since Jews had been banned by law from Britain in the fourteenth century. But this is no excuse for a playwright to publically insult other human beings.
In the play, Antonio is unable to repay the 3,000 ducat loan and is called before the Vancian Duke to pay the pound of flesh. Portia, a very rich woman, wife of the merchant’s friend, disguises herself as a man, travels to Shylock’s trial with her waiting-maid, and makes three arguments to save the merchant Antonio. The last argument is based on a Vancian law: if an alien (and Shylock is an alien solely because he is a Jew) seeks to kill a citizen, the Duke can at his discretion have that alien killed, Shylock refused to show mercy to Antonio, why should the Duke show mercy to him. However, if he converts and becomes a Christian, the Duke will not kill him, only take away his fortune. Isn’t this almost as bad as Shylock’s demand! The law in effect kills Shylock.
There are several other nonsensical items in the play. A few examples: (1) Shylock’s daughter is described repeatedly as a fine person because she falls in love with a Christian and converts to Christianity, yet she is praised for stealing many jewels from her father Shylock because he is a Jew, when she runs away with her suitor, and she wastes much of it. (2) Portia agrees to marry a man who is able to pick the right casket of three placed in front of him, one that contains her picture. He must swear that if he fails to pick the correct one, he will never marry. Does it make sense for Portia to base her marriage on a chance gamble and for a man to base his ability to marry in the future on the same gamble! (3) Portia and her maid give their husbands a ring with the condition that if they ever lose the ring, the marriage is over. The husbands swear to never give up the rings. After Shylock’s trial, the two wives, who their husbands do not recognize, demand that their husbands give them the rings as payment for saving Antonio, and their husbands give the rings to the two women who are disguised as men, forcing them to violate their oath never to give up the rings. Is this the way spouses should act! (4) More significantly, keeping an oat is a central theme in the play. Portia demands that her suitors swear that if they fail to pick the correct casket, they will never marry. Shylock obtains Antonio’s oath which he does not try to disavow that he will give a pound of flesh if he has no money to repay the 3,000 ducats. Why then does Portia and her maid compel their husbands to violate their oat never to give up the ring the wives are giving them. True, this is a joke on their part, to fool their husbands; but the fact remains that they got their husbands to violate their oath. Why couldn’t Antonio also violate his oath? (5) Portia argues in one of her three arguments that Shylock cannot cut a pound of flesh from Antonio because all that he is entitled to is flesh not blood, and he cannot cut out flesh without taking blood and this is a violation. Isn’t this sophistry? Surely when one bargains for a pound of flesh it includes the blood associated with it. (6) Antonio would only fail to keep his promise to pay if he has no money, and he doesn’t have any. His friend offers to pay Shylock twice what Antonio owes, 6,000 ducats, but Shylock refuses payments from him. The situation could have been resolved simply by Antonio’s friend giving 3,000 ducats to Antonio. Antonio would then have the money to pay, would pay it, and would not have to gift him with a pound of his flesh.
In short, it seems to me that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is an embarrassment.