The Merchant of Venice illustrates a clear discrepancy between the moral values of its Christian characters and those of Shylock; at last revealing favor for the mercy, generosity, love, and self-sacrifice of the Christians. Irrespective of the religious hypocrisy displayed by the Christians of the play, they ultimately prove the victors, while those who disregard the virtues of Christian doctrine suffer highly disagreeable consequences. Shylock, a miserly Jew and heartless usurer characterized by his greed, deception, and love of money, seems to have no concept of mercy or forgiveness. In his first aside, Shylock paints of himself a monstrous portrait establishing the nature of his character, when, in reference to Antonio, he asserts “I hate him for he is a Christian” (I, iii, 37) and resolutely concludes his speech with “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him” (I, iii, 46-47). Here, Shylock makes plain his unwillingness to forgive Antonio on the grounds that, by lending money freely, Antonio is detracting from his business. In contrast, Antonio, the Christian merchant and protagonist, is introduced as a selfless and charitable friend to Bassanio as he hazards to him an absurd quantity of money in a less than ideal circumstance. Without questioning the reason for Bassanio’s request, Antonio has already determined to give him all he desires, saying “Within the eye of honor, be assured/ My purse, my person, my extremest means/Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (I, i, 137-139). Antonio does not hesitate for an instant to sacrifice all of his material wealth for the benefit of a friend.
Antonio’s enthusiastic charity to Bassanio displays an apparent priority of friends over finance. Shylock’s priority is clearly the opposite, as can be observed from the following scenario: After learning of his daughter’s stealthy flight from his guardianship and her taking of jewels and ducats from his possession, Shylock reveals his true values: “Two thousand ducats in that and other precious jewels. I would my daughter were dead at my foot with the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot with the ducats in her coffin” (III, i, 73-76). This detestable response exhibits Shylock’s inhumanity. He cares so little for his own daughter that he values money over her well being. In reference to the same lines as seen above, Bernard Grebanier writes: “These shocking sentiments are scarcely in harmony with the long-suffering and loving paterfamilias of the sentimental school of critics. They are among the most horrifying sentences in literature” (Grebanier, 205). If no other instance in the play exhibits the polar opposition of sentiments between Shylock and the Christians, the aforementioned certainly does.
To understand the striking contrast between the actions and values of Shylock and those of the Christians, one must analyze the discrepancy in the cultural and religious backgrounds from which the characters arise. As Katherine Maus observes, “Antonio thinks he ought to lend money to friends as an act of charity, properly preformed as freely as God Himself dispenses grace” (Maus, 429). This observation acknowledges an adherence to Christian doctrine, in which Jesus requires his disciples to abandon everything they have to follow him. Self-sacrifice is simply expected of all good Christians, which explains why, as Maus puts it “the Christian demeanor is entrepreneurial, even reckless, the spiritual equivalent of what Antonio does with his ships or Bassanio does with the money he borrows from his friend” (Maus, 429). Shylock lives amidst a society in which he is shunned and denied the graces of friendship, which, in turn, causes his abrasive and hateful demeanor: a self-defense mechanism for the hand he is dealt. Maus notes the fact that Shylock is “unable to trust to love and generosity” so he “relies instead on contractually enforceable promises and networks of mutual material need” (Maus, 428). The Christians have...
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