2. Usury and Jews
3. Two Worlds in Venice
4. Religion and Greed
5. Revenge and Justice
6. Teasing Purification
Undoubtedly, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays, courtesy of the both interesting and complex character of Shylock the Jew. The play is basically a romantic comedy but the requirements of genre are scorned. It begins with brotherly love and ends with joy, at least for the Christians. However, in between, there is Shylock, who adds a very serious undertone to the play and makes it oddly profound for a comedy.
Although Shylock appears in but five out of twenty scenes, he represents a permanent threat and overshadows most of the play. No other character has so much "force, subtlety, vitality, variety; above all, none other has his intensity, isolation and apparent depth of motivation." It would be all too easy to explain this motivation and the way he is presented by means of mere anti-Semitism and stereotypes. Although Shakespeare could not ignore the prejudices of his time, "we should beware of attributing to Shakespeare and his audiences the cruelty of our own century." Those who intend to track down anti-Semitism in the play will not fail to find it. All too often, however, they will be blind to everything else and make the regrettable mistake of cutting both Shylock's character and the complexity of the play. There is more to Shylock, much more. His character can and should have the power to make the audience think.
Thus, one should have a close look at Shylock starting with the first things we get to know about him but without being oblivious to the social and historical background of the play's original reception. Furthermore, it is necessary to examine the depths of his character by means of analysing the development as well as the degree of obviousness of his motivation in order to disclose what moves and drives him. In the end, it should be possible to realise the underlying cause of his actions and draw corresponding conclusions.
2. Usury and Jews
Shylock is both a usurer and a Jew. This is the very first information about him and it is likely to evoke special sentiments and thus influence the audience's attitudes and judgements. This is where the social and historical context comes into play.
First of all, one should mention that at the time the play was written and performed there were virtually no Jews in England except a few converted ones. Shakespeare and the vast majority of the public were therefore very unlikely to have known any Jews. However, racial bias against them, inherited from the Middle Ages, was still prevalent. People always used to fear and hate what they considered different and alien. In the Middle Ages the Christians isolated the Jews and hated the self-made outsiders for their isolationism. Jews were not allowed to own land and most other occupations were closed to them so lending money was a common source of income for them since the New Testament forbade Christians to do it. Nonetheless, Christians needed money, lent it, and occasionally failed to pay it back. So the Jews, already disliked, had to collect debts now and then, which contributed to their bad reputation. They were conceptualised as archetypal sinners and after several anti-Jewish laws were passed in the late thirteenth century, hatred grew and they were finally expelled in 1290 not to be readmitted for more than 350 years. Yet in 1593, shortly before The Merchant of Venice was written, anti-Jewish sentiments were newly inflamed by the condemnation of Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's physician, who was accused of attempting to poison the queen. Though he claimed to be innocent, he was consequently hung and quartered. Thus, for the lack of other experiences people connected evilness and usury with Jews and vice versa.
On the one hand, usury was morally perceived as a sin and only suitable for Jews, but on the other hand it was about to become a commonplace in Elizabethan London, a routine part of business. This ambiguity was visible on yet another level: A law formally called usury a sin but the very same law said that ten percent was a legal rate of interest. A good part of Shakespeare's audience had certainly lent money on high rates of interest and was therefore well acquainted with the problem. Though common, usury was unpopular to say the least. Many of the playwright's contemporaries compared usury to theft and therefore scorned moneylenders as thieves, which undoubtedly increases the significance of Shylock's view that "thrift is blessing if men steal it not" (I.iii. 82) since he does steal it in their view and thus his statement is just quite an awkward attempt to unite religion and capitalism. At any rate, usury remained to be incompatible with the moral values of Christianity, even today, despite our modern capitalistic acceptance of interest, people tend not to want to charge interest on financial loans to their family and friends. As we know now, the medieval-Renaissance bias against usury, like its bias against Jews, was rooted in theological doctrine. Because usury was thought to violate the commandment of brotherly love, to violate mutual friendship.
While Shylock is rather money-fixated, the Christians seem to obey the commandment of brotherly love, which creates a strong contrast. Thus, a short glance at the way Antonio and his fellows handle money will be a good basis for the further examination of Shylock.
3. Two Worlds in Venice
One might first think that there is a strong religious contrast between Jews and Christians in Venice. But this contrast, as well as the hostility between Antonio and Shylock, can rather be put down to a clash of two conflicting economic ideals:
It is a contrast maintained in every scene of the play. Shylock in word and deed is typical, intense and precise; the Christians are impulsive, sentimental and wayward. Shylock trusts in his bond; the Christians trust to luck – whether it be Bassanio staking love and fortune on the choice of a casket or Antonio gambling on the ships which fail to come home. Shylock tells us of his 'bargains' and his 'well-won thrift', but riches fall from a window on to the head of Lorenzo.
In the first scene of the play, when Salarino wants to find out the reason of Antonio's sadness, the latter instantly replies that he is not worried about his merchandise (I.i. 41-45). A little later, Bassanio approaches him for a loan:
BASSANIO: 'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
[…] To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
ANTONIO: My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.
BASSANIO: In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and – fairer than that word –
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages.
[…] O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate.
ANTONIO: […] Try what my credit can in Venice do, […] [I.i. 121 – 179; my italics ]
Thus, Bassanio is already in debt when he wants more money from Antonio to woo Portia, which is a venture with an uncertain ending that possibly leaves him with even more debts. Without having talked about the exact amount of money, Antonio agrees at once and tells his friend to borrow the money in his name. Later on, Antonio confidently signs the bond without thinking of possible consequences at all, "Come on, in this there can be no dismay!" (I.iii. 173) In the same manner, he even urges Bassanio not to think of the bond:
 John Lyon. The Merchant of Venice. Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare.
Boston, 1988, 1.
 John R. Brown. "The Realization of Shylock: A theatrical Criticism." In The Merchant of Venice:
Critical Essays. Thomas Wheeler (ed.). New York, 1991, 286.
 Bill Overton. "The Problem of Shylock." In The Merchant of Venice: Critical Essays. Thomas Wheeler (ed.). New York, 1991, 298.
 M. Lindsay Kaplan. The Merchant of Venice. Texts and Contexts. Boston, 2002, 245.
 Kaplan, The Merchant of Venice. Texts and Contexts, 189.
 Joan Ozark Holmer. The Merchant of Venice. Choice, Hazard and Consequence. London et al., 1995, 159.
 Holmer, The Merchant of Venice. Choice, Hazard and Consequence, 166.
 John Palmer. "Shylock." In The Merchant of Venice: A Casebook. John Wilders (ed.). London, a1969, 120.