Forgot your password?

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: Aspects of Christian Conformity

By Edited Nov 11, 2015 0 0

A strained relationship can change the way in which we interpret the dynamics of a story and can help us better understand the essence of the characters involved. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica’s relationship with her father, and society’s predominantly Christian influence on her life, leads her down a path of misconduct that is surprisingly rewarded with good fortune in the end. Jessica readily accepts Christianity and conforms to it, whereas Shylock, her father, is adamant about sticking to his beliefs, and seeks vengeance against Venetian Christians by attempting to lawfully take Antonio’s life, which backfires and results in an unwilling conformity to his enemies’ faith. Therefore, Jessica’s desire to transition from a miserable and somewhat imprisoned daughter of a Jew to a Christian that betrays and wrongs her father contrasts with Shylock’s reluctance to conform to Christian values and beliefs, which separates him from his daughter and results in his poor fortune.

Jessica makes it clear early on that she is not content living under Shylock’s tyranny. She indicates this discontent when bidding farewell to Launcelot: “Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,/ Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness./ But fare thee well” [1]. Although Jessica is clearly miserable living with her father, she never rationally explains why she feels this way. One possible explanation has to do with the influence from the primarily Christian society that she lives in. Being a minority in that time could not have been easy, especially if the group that Jessica belongs to is looked down upon and spat on for their profession and for their beliefs. For instance, Shylock’s initial refusal to dine with Antonio and Bassanio was justified by proclaiming that he does not dine with Christians because they eat pork, which is against his religion [1]. Furthermore, Venetian Jews are alienated within this Christian based society because they apply usury to loans, which is a direct violation of Christian beliefs [1]. From the abovementioned examples, we can see the friction between Venetian Christians and Jews.

Another explanation for Jessica’s desire to leave her Jewish father and renounce her religion is linked to her father’s overprotective, almost paranoid, nature. Shylock refuses to let his daughter become a part of the Christian world that he believes is consumed by sinful pleasures. Ironically, Shylock’s efforts to protect his daughter from society’s influences results in pushing her closer to the sinful world he feared would infiltrate his home and daughter. Before departing for his dinner with Antonio and Bassanio, Shylock tells Jessica to “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum./ And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,/ Clamber not you up to the casements then,/ Nor thrust your head into the public street./ To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces./ But stop my house’s ears—I mean my casements—/ Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter/ My sober house” [1]. The above excerpt gives us a glimpse of Shylock’s fear about losing his daughter to a Christian society that he cannot stand, one in which has no place for him.

Although we may never fully understand why Jessica felt such resentment for her father, her transition from the daughter of a Jew to a Christian could not have been possible without the help from Launcelot and without Lorenzo’s love. Launcelot’s main role in relation to Jessica is to provide a discrete line of communication between her and Lorenzo. He does this by delivering correspondences between the two. By maintaining his loyalty to Jessica, Launcelot has, in effect, betrayed Shylock and made it possible for the young Jewess’ escape. As previously mentioned, Lorenzo’s love for Jessica is another factor of her eventual departure from her Jewish household. Lorenzo, along with the other Christian characters, perceives Jessica as a sinless person that is so innately good that her Jewish father’s salvation and entrance into heaven can only remotely be possible as a result of his association with her [1].  At this point of the play there is no reasonable objection to the Christians’ attitude towards Jessica, but, as the play progresses, we begin to see a new dimension of Shylock’s daughter. 

After leaving her home disguised as a page, Jessica begins the Christian life that she longed. Accompanied by Lorenzo, they headed for Belmont, but on the way there, Jessica recklessly spends’ the ducats and jewelry that she stole from her father. Upon discovering of her departure with his beloved possessions, Shylock takes to the streets, screaming “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter/ Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!/ Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter!/…stol'n from me by my daughter!/ And jewels—two stones, two rich and precious stones” [1]. Shylock’s frantic and irrational shouts reveal the remnants of a man that has lost the two most important things in his life: worldly possessions in the form of ducats and jewelry, and his only daughter. However, by going back and forth between the loss of his ducats and the loss of his daughter, it is difficult to tell which loss affects him most. In addition, under the circumstances described above, Shylock’s barriers have fallen; his rational and strategic persona has given way to emotions that define his humanity. In this sense, the ruthless Shylock, as described by Christian Venetians, is every bit as human as any Christian. By caring about the departure of his daughter from his life, he displays a passionate side that Christians can relate to. As evident in the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, Christians place more emphasis on their relationship with one another than on monetary or materialistic possessions. Therefore, Shylock acts in accordance with this when he expresses the loss of his daughter, but also maintains part of his character by showing an equal form of emotion for the loss of his ducats.  

As Jessica’s spending spree continued, she trades in Shylock’s turquoise ring for a monkey [1]. Given to him by his wife, this ring is held dear to Shylock’s heart. He cannot believe that his daughter traded it in for a useless creature. The loss of his turquoise ring further reaffirms Shylock’s humanity. By attributing a sense of nostalgia to an object, he oversees its economic value and once again allows his emotions to take over. However, Shylock refrains from screaming this time. Instead, he sulks in the pain that his daughter produced. It seems that Jessica’s transition from the daughter of a cold, calculating Jew to a Christian is complete.

Jessica’s betrayal of her father, her decision to steal Shylock’s jewelry and ducats, and her irresponsible spending spree exemplify actions that are not representative of a sinless Christian. Although this is true, she is never criticized by any character besides Shylock for her wrongdoings. It seems that Jessica can do no wrong, whereas Shylock is the antagonist of Christian Venetians no matter what. For instance, providing Antonio with an interest-free loan can be interpreted as a kind act, but asking for a pound of flesh as a consequence of failing to repay the loan is Shylock’s way of protecting himself from the people that already despise him [1]. The reason why the Christian characters in the play do not criticize Jessica’s actions towards her father is because she is acting in accordance with the way Venetian Christians live. She spends Shylock’s ducats in a frivolous, carefree manner which correlates with Bassanio’s finances. Bassanio, as a Christian, finds himself in financial debt because he tries desperately to uphold an upper-class status within Venetian society. He lives beyond his means and, like Jessica, he too spends frivolously. Furthermore, Jessica’s wrongdoings go un-criticized because of Christians’ perceived hatred of Shylock.

Merchant of Venice
Shylock’s exploitation of people through usury is the main reason behind Christians’ negative perception of him. Venetian Christians do not believe in charging interest, or high-interest for the matter, when loaning money to another. To them, the act of loaning money represents one’s love for another. For instance, when Bassanio requests a loan from Antonio, Antonio responds by telling him that he would do anything for him. In fact, Antonio goes as far as saying “And out of doubt you do me now more wrong/ In making question of my uttermost/ Than if you had made waste of all I have,” [1] which identifies doubt of Antonio’s love for his friend Bassanio as being more painful than if Bassanio had bankrupted him. Placing friendship above one’s finances was common amongst Venetian Christians. Not surprisingly, Christians’ negative perception of Shylock, a Jew that believes in cunningness and thriftiness as vital to success in his profession, is fueled by the usury he employs. Shylock is stereotyped as being cruel in his “devilish ways,” but what did he do to deserve this? Did he commit murder, or steal, or rape women? No, he simply charged high interest on loans. By prioritizing his finances over his relationships, Shylock has alienated himself from Venetian society. In doing so, Shylock gave Christians reasons for dehumanizing him. Venetians could not understand how a human being can exploit another (through usury). Therefore, classifying Shylock as inhuman made perfect sense to them. However, treating some individuals as human beings while treating others as inhuman is a form of Christian hypocrisy. Christian teachings regard all individuals, independent of race or religion, as belonging to mankind, as being human.

Although despised by Christians for his high-interest loans, Shylocks’ poor fortune had little to do with his profession. Throughout the play, Shylock is adamant about sticking to his beliefs, and he continues to seek vengeance against Venetian Christians by attempting to lawfully take Antonio’s life. Shylock’s inability to willingly conform to Christian society leads to his poor fortune. The play ends with Shylock coming frustratingly close to slicing a pound of flesh out of Antonio and, as a result, receiving his revenge against the society that shunned him. However, this did not happen, it could not happen. In The Merchant of Venice, the majority population (Christians) is triumphant over all minorities. For instance, the casket test was failed by foreigners but passed by Bassanio, a Christian. Christians believe that there is more to things than meets the eye. This results in Bassanio overlooking the gold and silver caskets and, instead, selecting the seemingly modest lead casket which contained Portia’s picture [1]. The same concept can be applied to the trial between Shylock and Antonio. As Shylock came close to unleashing his vengeance upon Antonio and the Christian majority that dominates Venetian society, Portia used the law that Shylock hoped would help him attain his bond by stipulating that the agreement is for a pound of Antonio’s flesh that is only permissible if acquired without drawing blood [1].  Since this was impossible, Shylock violated Venetian law and was at the mercy of the Christian court. In this scenario, law represented the final blow to the character Shylock. In the end, Shylock lost his initial principal of three-thousand ducats, is forced to convert to Christianity, and is cornered into leaving all of his wealth to his daughter upon his death [1].

From Shylock’s point of view, the abovementioned conditions enacted by the court are truly devastating; they mark the end of Shylock the Jew. His fortune could not have been worse. The Christian majority was once again successful in suppressing minorities. However, from the Christians’ point of view, Shylock is saved. Shylock’s soul is saved because he converted to Christianity, which can be seen as good fortune from a Christian standpoint. Similarly, Jessica’s willingness to conform to Christianity results in good fortune because she gets to live her life with her love, she experiences no consequences for stealing her father’s ducats and jewelry, and she stands to inherit Shylock’s fortune once he passes away. Although, the difference between Jessica’s overall good fortune and Shylock’s misfortune is that she chose to convert to Christianity, whereas Shylock was forced to. By conforming to the majority, Jessica became fortunate beyond belief. Shylock, however, is only fortunate in that he gets to keep his life and, according to Christianity, his soul is saved.

To conclude, Jessica’s willingness to transition from the daughter of a Jew to a Christian that betrays and wrongs her father contrasts with Shylock’s reluctance to conform to Christian values and beliefs, which separates their fortunes. Jessica’s hatred for her father is difficult to understand, but her actions after departing from Shylock’s house speak for themselves. Her frivolous spending spree exemplifies sins that go unnoticed by Christians. Furthermore, Jessica’s actions also allow us to see a glimpse of Shylock’s humanity as he reacts to the news concerning her spending spree. In the end, Shylock, representing minorities, is squashed by the powerful Christian majority of his time. Unbelievably good fortune was rewarded to Jessica, and unbelievably poor fortune was bestowed upon Shylock. To this extent, Shylock challenged a society that he had little chances of defeating and, in the process, lost all he held dear.



Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.



  1. "The Merchant of Venice (1596)." Open Source Shakespeare. 15/06/2014 <Web >

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB History