This statement is particularly relevant to the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ wherein Shakespeare presents us with a world that is marred by sectarianism. Venice at this time is a divisive society. Christians despise Jews and treat them with contempt. Shylock represents the Jewish religion in the play and we are appalled by the ill-treatment he receives at the hands of the Christians. He is referred to a ‘cut-throat dog’, ‘a faithless Jew’, ‘an inexecrable dog’, ‘misbeliever’. He is spat on in the streets in front of everyone. This is very humiliating for Shylock and yet he does not refuse to lend Antonio and his friend the money that they require. The Christians strike me as being very arrogant and completely unashamed of their behaviour of Shylock. Antonio tells Shylock that he is likely to spit at him again despite the fact that Shylock has just lent him a lot of money. Shylock wants to be reconciled with Antonio: ‘I would be friends with you’ but Antonio is completely hostile towards Shylock. Antonio does not treat Shylock with justice and fairness.
However, when Shylock demands his bond because Antonio has forfeited the loan, Shylock is made out to be the villain. Antonio entered into the bond out of his own volition and he was fully cognisant of the consequences were he to forfeit. However, Shylock is vilified because he adheres to the terms and conditions of the loan. He is accused of being unmerciful. He is discriminated against purely because of his religion. One wonders if the roles were reverse, would Antonio be expected to forgo his rights and entitlements. One expects not. Shylock is unjustly punished for simply adhering to the terms and conditions of the loan. He is made to give up his property to Lorenzo and his treacherous daughter Jessica and he is made to convert to Christianity. This hardly seems fair.
If your studied play were set in another time or place, would things be different? Would people be protected from ill-treatment and injustice?
Unfortunately, I think the problem of sectarianism is a perennial problem. Despite living in a multicultural world, there are still many people who are very intolerant to other people’s religious beliefs. Take for example ordinary Muslims living in America in 2016, who are discriminated against because of their religious affiliation. Religious fundamentalism within Islam has impacted negatively on the majority of mainstream Muslims. They are treated with suspicion when travelling from country to country. Also there is a lot of propaganda in the media and right-wing extremism as endorsed by Donal Trump has only serve to exacerbate the problem of sectarianism for Muslims. People tend to put all Muslims in the one category- that they are all part of ISIS and this is completely ridiculous. The divisive nature of the society found in Venice at the time the play is set is sadly mirrored in many societies around the world in 2016.
Imagine you have been given the power to make changes in the world of your play. What would you do?
I would legislate to criminalise sectarianism. Acts of public hatred as seen directed at Shylock should not be tolerated. I feel that this act is extremely provocative and only serves to exacerbate the problem. I would introduce religious education in the schools of Venice so that all young Venetian children would learn about all the different religions and develop a healthy respect and tolerance for diversity. Education is feel would be key to eradicating the problem of sectarianism in Venice. I think it would be incumbent on me to organise social activities in the Venetian communities that would seek to promote integration of Christians and Jews. Hopefully Christians like Antonio and Bassanio could become firm friends with people like Shylock and Tubal. These activities would aim to promote a culture of tolerance, respect and acceptance in Venice. I would make the elimination of ghettos an integral part of the political agenda. I do not believe that Shylock should be marginalised in his own city. This is outrageous and should not be tolerated. The marginalisation of Jews in Venice at this time is unfair, unjust and completely unacceptable.