Is Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ Relevant Today?

William Shakespeare. Photo by Mike on

Author Sarah Cabucos critically analyses the value of this Shakespearean comedy in our 21st century classroom.

Romeo, Hamlet, Shylock – are a handful of Shakespeare’s characters whose names are instantly recognisable. A “Romeo” is now a persistent romancer rather than a lover faithful unto death and a “Hamlet” is an indecisive over thinker. The Merchant of Venice’s “Shylock” is no longer a greedy moneylender but, I would argue, a victim of racial oppression. These ‘Shakespearean’ archetypes have ventured so far from their original context but more important are the very changes marked by these appropriations, telling a revealing story about the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in our modern milieu, let alone the English Studies syllabus.

Society immemorial has suffered from the farce that tradition is the foundation of significance and The Merchant of Venice has not escaped this; it is no longer worthy of the gravity it holds in our education system. It’s a story of a humanity populated by characters who speak of profound concepts- ones that we now perceive as “naturally” true: ideas about human character, integrity, about men and women, about youth and respect. However, as a student, I struggled to glean moral significance from the words of deceitful characters whose hypocrisy undermines these messages; whose portrayed ‘valour’ is now steeped in anti-Semitic and sexist rhetoric. Whilst the fundamental values of The Merchant of Venice are still pivotal, the natural evolution of societal sensitivities have made this play into something I believe it was never intended to be. Trapped in bygone times, it reads now as a historical timepiece rather than an effective moral study.

When William Shakespeare devised the character of a socially-alienated Jew and wrote a plot around Semitic discrimination, he did not know the context it was going to bear in a post-holocaust society. Indeed, the play showcases the triumph of religious hypocrisy and naively glorifies Christianity as the salvation of Judaism. Lost amongst a merciful motif, the Merchant of Venice tells us that we are only to be good to those who share our religious or racial standings. That if an individual be of some other race, creed, or religion, then we are justified in “spit[ting] on thee, [in] spurn[ing] thee too” (I, iii).

Portia speaks of the heavenly quality of merciful justice, yet she eagerly upholds the humiliation of Shylock under a ‘merciful’ pretence. To exhibit the mercy that Portia spoke of, Antonio should have let the law take its course and simply take what was his. Instead, we see Shylock deprived of his humanity by characters who just established that mercy is a quality “droppeth as the gentle rains from heaven” (IV, i). Yes, Antonio is often heroized for sparing Shylock’s life, but what we have failed to whole-heartedly realise is that he also stole from Shylock his Jewish identity. What is humanity without identity? What is a person without a face? He stole from Shylock that which made him Shylock.

I’ve been told time and time again about the significance of Portia’s soliloquy. And I can’t stand here and deny the moral potency of her words, but I want us to ask ourselves: do we define mercy today as denying someone of their cultural identity? Do we define mercy today as forcing our own ideals onto someone else? If your answer is no, then how can we continue to extract meaning from Portia’s plea for mercy, coming from a character who we can now see was an avid proponent of anti-Semitism. Her speech is often glorified in schools for her powerful words, yet she bends in the winds of racial discrimination when given the chance to show her own definition of mercy; a hypocritical bigot makes for a weak platform for virtue.

Adding another layer to this religious hypocrisy, The Merchant of Venice presents us with an outdated patriarchy overruled by anti-Semitism. The script reinforces that desirable women are obedient to the men in their lives, except if you are Jewish. This is embodied by Jessica who is adorned by Christian men for disrespecting her father, deemed “wise, fair and true” (II, vi) by Lorenzo. But it doesn’t add up…where Portia’s desirability is entwined with her compliance to her father’s will, Jessica’s applauded disrespect for the patriarchy is only so because her father is Jewish. The recurring subplot of Christian salvation reneges on the values of Elizabethan England, revealing the religious hypocrisy of the ‘antagonists’- where the precondition of Jessica and Lorenzo’s love is her “becom[ing] a Christian” (II, iii) and deserting her father.

We live in a world where religion has snuck into the shadows of our culture as a taboo subject, as a platform for violence and extremism. As of 2017, 34.1% of migrants experienced racism on our public transport and 43% believe that all boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back (SBS, 2018). Racism is clearly so alive in our society today, perhaps we should stop teaching a text with a racially divisive narrative as the flagship for moral discussions in our classrooms. And if you still believe in traditionalism of The Merchant of Venice- consider this: why do you not find yourself laughing at a play originally written as a comedy?

How to reference this article?

Cabucos, S. (2020), ‘Is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice Relevant Today?’ in, download on today’s date.

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