What are the social elements revealed in William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’?
or, Comment on the class and colour distinction as depicted in the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
“The Merchant of Venice” is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It is remarkable not only for its depiction of some of the greatest characters in the history of English literature but also for the revelation of some social elements like colour prejudice, class distinction, racial hatred and the position of women in the society.
class distinction and racial hatred in The Merchant of Venice
The play is undoubtedly all about Shylock, the Jew. He is more of a victim of religious persecution than a villain. He has suffered greatly at the hands of the Christians, especially of Antonio. His intolerance and savagery had been the result of his wretched existence subjected to age-old insult, outrage and social injustice that left his tribe caught up in the morass of desperation. All he did was only a protest, though it ended in a whimper. But it did not give the Christian merchants an occasion for exultation. Rather, the sad end came as a rude shock for their unchristian social attitude, putting them to shame.
Then in case of the Prince of Morocco, he can’t win Portia’s love. Though it was his boasting nature that disgusts her more, his dark complexion had a negative impact on her mind.
Again, Launcelot, as a servant, is the victim of torture in the hand of Shylock, that leads to his disloyalty in the end. Shylock also could not accept Lorenzo as his son-in-law. He also instructed Jessica to lock the windows to prevent the Christian noise from entering his ‘sacred’ house. He just developed a strong feeling of disgust against the Christians.
position of women in the society in ‘The Merchant of Venice’
And to talk about the position of women in the society, as depicted in “The Merchant of Venice”, Portia was not allowed full freedom to choose her own soul-mate. This may indicate a male dominated society. And Jessica too was not expected to choose her own husband. So she had to flee with her lover in the night. Again, Portia, Nerissa and Jessica — all had to dress in men’s apparel in order to safeguard themselves from curious eyes or to enable themselves perform some specific actions like arguing in the court room. This is indication enough that women were not allowed to do things that they actually could have done well. But at the same time, it is evident that every important woman character in the play, namely Portia, Nerissa and Jessica just outshines their male counterparts, when it comes to intellectual capacities. The male characters like Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo look rather static and faded.
Though there have been many other instances to reveal the social elements, the most important is the oppression of the Jews by the Christians. And that’s why modern critics sympathize with Shylock to have been denied of justice and they call the play anti-Semitic.