William Shakespeare lived during the early modern period, a period in the western history that was set between the industrial revolution and Middle Ages. This period was characterized by numerous social problems that were evident in the entire England especially due to the transition from the Middle age to new modern society. Furthermore, this period saw the rise of the capitalist economies, and England was essentially rising in importance. Therefore, social problems outlined by William Shakespeare’s were inevitable. The Shakespeare’s play titled Merchant of Venice has clearly reflected the social problems that were evident in 16th century. The social problems reflected by the play include gender, religious and economic disparities. William Shakespeare has integrated above social problems in the entire play. This essay will analyze how William Shakespeare has reflected gender, economic and religious disparities among other social problems in the play. Furthermore, the paper will describe how the above social problems are developed in the context of the play (Shakespeare, William 68).
During the 16th century, the issue of gender was a common social problem in England; women were essentially accorded inferiority status in terms of competency and upbringing. The Shakespeare’s play has highlighted the issue of sexism, where women are portrayed as being powerless and with no fundamental rights. This is evident when Portia is obligated to choose her suitor through the casket test devised by her father, “you should refuse to perform your father's will if you should refuse to accept him”. Through this, Portia is presented as a caged bird, and she eventually expresses her discontentment. Although she is frustrated that her freedom is limited by the father’s will, she still abides to the will but out of family devoutness (Shakespeare, William 103).
The issue of gender disparities is also evident in the scene where Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father”. Shakespeare brings out Jessica as a powerless person as she solely follows the instruction from the Lorenzo. In the play, Lorenzo tells Jessica that she “must” be his torch-bearer. William Shakespeare uses torch-bearer in the play to insinuate the image of a slave and an owned individual. This is a clear illustration of how during the Shakespeare’s era women were subjected to the superiority of the men. It is also evident that Jessica thinks that it is a shame to conform to the Lorenzo’s demands. Nevertheless, due to her inferior position in the society she is forced to comply (Shakespeare, William 165).
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In the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, women are discriminated in the man’s domains because of the society expectation. This is reflected despite Shakespeare living during the time when the British monarchy was throughout the reign of women for decades. Shakespeare has depicted women as a weaker gender that is looked down upon by the entire society. This is the main reason that forces Portia and Nerissa to disguise as a male lawyer and clerk during the court scene “Enter Portia, dressed like a doctor of laws”. However, after Shylock right to extract a pound of the flesh is stripped off by Portia, it is evident that women are also as competent as men. This is a clear indication that the English society during the 16th century looked down upon women as weak gender, and in order for women to be equal to men, they were required to shun down all their feminine tags (Lyon 85).
During the 16th century, England was plagued by many economic issues. This made a large percentage of citizens to migrate to London mainly because the wages were 50 percent higher than in the other part. In the play, the central issue is economic based. Shakespeare uses a language of economic, especially those of investment and risk to propel the dramatic action of the plot. William Shakespeare has used various characters to create a conflict especially through the forfeiture and breaking of the bonds, investment and taking of the bonds. The notions of debts, gift exchange and morality are a representation of the economics of the England as emerging economic power during the 16 century. In early 16th century, England was becoming conscious of itself as a wealthy country and considered Venice as a prototype. It is during this period that England theatre became strongest, prompting Shakespeare’s work to use economic jargons that were developing in the emerging capitalist economy (Harrison 76).
The play is an evident indication of the England’s view on the Venice economics, which was essentially unique in comparison to that of England. William Shakespeare was exceedingly influenced by the social identification of Venice as an economic power house in 16th century. Throughout the play, the plot revolves around socio-economic issues such as money, class and debts. The play begins in Venice with Antonio conversing with Solanio and Salarino about his depressed state. Furthermore, Salarino responds by speaking of Antonio livelihood and wealth, which include a fleet of ships, “Your thought is tossing on the deep sea; There, where your ships with portly navigate”. William Shakespeare uses melancholy state to set the dramatic foundation for the plot of the play. This is because Antonio wealth is considered to be in trouble due to the solvency of his business. Shakespeare uses Antonio to represent his unstable position in the society in England. Furthermore, Shakespeare uses Bassanio as a representative of the new morality in capitalism in regard to risk and investment in England. This is evident since Bassanio is portrayed as extravagant and frivolous in spending to the point of insolvency (Lyon 63).
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The play Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare has also outlined the religious disparities that were evident in England in 16th century. During the Elizabethan England in 16th century, there were strong elements of religious belief. Furthermore, the declaration of protestant Christianity as an official religion resulted to a lot of social problems that were religiously based. Shakespeare has used such elements segregation to symbolize religious sectarianism in the play. In the play, the disturbing issue is the anti-Semitic depiction of the personality of Shylock. One cannot disregard the fact that Shylock’s character reflects some extremely nasty stereotypes about Jews. Shylock is depicted as being money mad especially when he states, “To cut the forfeiture from that bankrupt there”, and to a point of having lost touch with his normal mental state for his daughter. However, the motivation of his action also draws on the religious faith, common in Shakespeare’s time (Lyon 44).
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The popularity of the play depends not just on such factors as beauty of language and timeless themes of mercy and justice, but also the way in which William Shakespeare managed to overcome anti-Semitism of his times to make Shylock a fully established character. The play has brought to light the context of social problem during the Shakespeare’s time. In the 16th century, European Jews were the despised and persecuted minority. In England, the situation went beyond mere persecution and harassment by banning of Jews from one county. Furthermore, the William Shakespeare was intended to capitalize on anti-Semitic public opinion dated back to the 15th century. The element of hatred due to religious affiliation is also evident whenever Antonio and Shylock meet, especially in the market. Antonio also refers to Shylock as to “cut throat dog”. Furthermore, there are instances where Antonio even spits on the Shylock religious gabardine. In conclusion, it is apparent that the social problems that were evident during the Shakespeare’s era have acted as a main motivation in the play. Shakespeare has drawn a lot from the social problems that people were undergoing during the 16th century (Lyon 154).
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