The Merchant of Venice and Drastic Differences between Christianity and Judaism

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The theatric text “The Merchant of Venice”, written by the acclaimed playwright William Shakespeare, explores fundamental religious differences between Christianity and Judaism and the effects of the same, particularly through the allusions woven throughout the play. There exists significant prejudice throughout the play, shown from followers of each religion to those of the other. Though the Christians are superficially presented as correct, much wrong is done to the Jews. Shakespeare’s characters’ varying interpretations and usage of religious references in rhetoric implies some contradiction or fundamental conflict in theological ideas. However, there are also many points upon which they agree; though these are given less importance, they provide contrast to the relentless clashes, reminding the audience of the shared origin that the religions have. Shakespeare then demonstrates that the interaction between the two religions is one of mutual willful ignorance largely due to the intransigence of either side, and is fueled further by prejudice and preconceived notions. Thus, Shakespeare uses biblical allusions to present the irreconcilable discrepancies and strong similarities in spiritual values between Christianity and Judaism, but also the impact of stereotypes on their interaction.

Divergent interpretations of the same biblical allusions underscore the two religions’ fundamental ideological differences, in several different ways. Firstly, Christianity seems more benevolent than Judaism, which is more focused on monetary equality. This is evidenced through the passage in Act 1 Scene 3, during which Antonio and Shylock differ on interpretations of the story of Jacob and Laban. Shylock seems almost mercantilist in his reasoning, mentioning that the trickery during the story was “a way to thrive”. By contrast, Antonio, the personification of Christianity, seems far more concerned with God’s will, or natural law. This can be seen from his assessment of the profit being a windfall one, “swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven”. Christianity is exhibited as more forgiving than Judaism, which Shakespeare presents as more focused on harsh justice. This can be seen from the differing opinions of Shylock and Gratiano on a “second Daniel”. Gratiano interprets this to mean one that does what is merciful, but also unjust to Shylock, while Shylock assumes that a second Daniel is one that enforces the rule of law and order. Moreover, their actions differ in Act 4 Scene 1; Shylock would have nothing but the death of Antonio (the pound of flesh), whilst Antonio and the Duke were more merciful, but at the cost of the consistency of the law. A factor to consider is that the Duke may well have done this purely for the purpose of exhibiting the discrepancy in the religions’ spirits – he does indeed use the punishment to demonstrate this, saying “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit”. Thus, Shakespeare uses the device of biblical allusion as a vehicle to convey the elementally conflicting philosophies of Judaism and Christianity.

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Simultaneously, Shakespeare subtly presents the similarities between Judaism and Christianity to remind readers of the relative size of their differences. These similarities provide context to the relentless juxtapositions between their other aspects. The untold prime similarity is naturally their common origin; both are Abrahamic, monotheistic religions. This is implied by their use of biblical stories included in both the Talmud and the Bible, such as that of Jacob and Laban. The presupposition that there is one true god, made in any mention of the word “God” spelled with a capital letter, contributes to the emphasis of the similarities. Through such implications, Shakespeare demonstrates that it is the interpretation upon which the religions disagree, rather than the more fundamental aspects. Additionally, Christianity and Judaism preach in alike ways regarding practical matters. This can be observed from the accord between Portia and Shylock that precedent in breaking contracts could not be set, that all would be rendered void by the invalidity of the one. Lastly, their similarity is illustrated to great effect by Shylock during Act 3 Scene 1, through comparisons of the followers of each doctrine. The series of asyndetic lists, each in a rhetorical question, first describing the actions of Antonio, then basic aspects of their shared human experience (in nouns, then juxtaposed actions), followed by a series of anaphoric rhetorical questions serves to display that the religions are intrinsically similar in that they are the beliefs of the same people: human beings. Hence, Shakespeare gently introduces, and persistently reminds the audience of the common factors between the two religions.

Shakespeare demonstrates that Judaism and Christianity’s mutual willful ignorance is fueled by prejudice, stereotypes and intransigence through asides and other dramatic devices. During the asides of Act 1, Scene 3, a clear unwillingness from each to understand the other is shown. In Shylock’s aside, he says “I hate him for he is a Christian,”; this outright statement of the preconceived notion can be interpreted as such. Though one may argue that this notion had been fostered through Antonio’s mistreatment of Shylock, such a diatribe is nevertheless unwarranted. From Antonio’s side, who has received civil treatment (insofar is possible) from Shylock, the comparison of Shylock with “The devil”, “An evil soul”, and “a villain” is a blatant example of discrimination without reason, and the lack of effort generally made to sympathise with situations in which followers of the other religion are put. Furthermore, Bassanio too remarks that Shylock has “a villain’s mind”. Once more, the assumption of hurtful intent leads to bias and hurtful action. In addition to this, Tubal’s entry in Act 3 Scene 1 is preceded by Solanio, a somewhat naive character, commenting that “a third cannot be matched unless the devil himself turn Jew”. Given Solanio’s previous kowtowing to Antonio, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that he makes these comments in an effort to resemble his idol, Antonio. Thus, one could deduce that the prejudice has a compounding effect as it filters from those who are more powerful to those less so. The trial scene develops this intransigence, and highlights one of the notorious aspects of Christianity. This becomes apparent upon Antonio’s demand that Shylock “presently become a Christian”. His total rejection of his standpoint, the standpoint of many a Jew, leads him to remove such an aberration to his worldview through conversion. This is, perhaps, the most extreme example of prejudice in the play.

Thus, Shakespeare presents the stark ideological differences between Christianity and Judaism, simultaneously weaving in their similarities, and demonstrating the influence of these on their interaction. Through the illustration of the conflict between the religions, despite their vast agreements, he disputes whether the degree of difference matters. However, all humans are different, unique. Shakespeare, then, questions the meaningfulness of the concepts of difference and its true impact on prejudice.

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