It is hard to determine whether or not Shakespearean comedy is clearly a product of Elizabethan courtly society. It can be said that the answer to that question is both yes and no. It is apparent in The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare’s writing was strongly influenced by the society surrounding him while A Midsummer Nights Dream is much less realistic and so original that one might think he came from another time period all together.
In The Merchant of Venice there are countless examples of how Shakespeare’s works were a product of society. One of the main similarities is religion. The official established state religion in Shakespeare’s time was the Church of England, lucidly Protestant. Everyone was required to attend an Anglican Service once a month. The Anglican service is also called Prayer Service, Prayer Book Service, Common Prayer, or the Lord’s Supper. Although it was not expressly illegal to be of a different religion, it was not exactly legal to practice the faith of ones choice. There were even fines for not conforming to the sanctioned religion; that is, for not going to Protestant services. (Nicoll, 76) Jewish people were quite rare in England during the Elizabethan time period and they seemed to be looked down upon the most (although it was not considered a lot better to be a Catholic). Shakespeare probably never knew a Jewish person directly, but during his time the Queen’s Jewish doctor was executed for being ‘a spy’. Also, during that time it would have been considered quite normal to force someone to convert to Christianity. Shakespeare’s Venice had the same mentality about Jewish people. Anti-Semitism was overwhelmingly abundant. Although Shylock was surely a respectable businessman, it did not seem out of the ordinary for Antonio to spit on him and call him a dog whenever it took his fancy. Shylock seems to be the only one who realizes the hypocrisy of the ‘good Christians’ and makes mention of it in his famed speech in Act III:
SHYLOCK… Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? (III. i.49-57)
Even after this long and haughtingly true speech Shylock was given no mercy by the other characters in the play. It seems that the people of Shakespeare’s time would have appreciated having an occasional Jewish person around since Jewish people were the only ones able to lend out money for profit. Even in their hatred of him, Antonio and Bassanio seem to have no problem with the idea of borrowing a huge sum of money from Shylock. Although non-Jewish people considered lending money for profit a sin, these same people readily took advantage of their ‘sin’ when they were in a pinch for money.
Another similarity between The Merchant of Venice and the society Shakespeare was a part of was the way life was for women. It is well known that Queen Elizabeth never wed simply in order to maintain her power. A woman could rule a country on her own, but if she were married all power would go directly into the hands of the husband as if somehow a ring on her finger made her less capable of managing things. In The Merchant of Venice Portia has all the power in Belmont and knows well that as soon as she be wed it will be given to whomever the correct-casket-picking man be. Portia does like to do things on her own, as we see from her great joy in pretending to be a lawyer in Act IV scene i. She also seems to know that she is marrying a man who needs to be taught how to be a husband and does so without his realizing. She willingly gives up her freedom (by helping Bassanio to choose the correct casket) and the rule she has over Belmont simply because she is attracted to Bassanio. One may devise that Portia might have done this only to get rid of the bother caused by the many suitors she has to turn away on a daily basis.
Portia’s suitors, in fact, are another aspect of The Merchant of Venice that shows society’s influence on Shakespeare’s writing. The English of the time were ‘professionally paranoid’ of anything foreign. The word insular might have been coined to describe them. (Holderness, 64) Portia herself may well be a racist. One of the first things that the Price of Morocco says to her is ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’ (II. i.1) as though he realizes that in Belmont his dark skin is not entirely, if at all approved of. Although she does not make comments about the Prince of Aragon, one can be sure that Portia does not want a Spanish husband either. She is decidedly set on Bassanio who is, of course, the same nationality, faith, and race as her.
A Midsummer Nights Dream, as the name suggests, is quite dreamy and fairy tale like. Unlike The Merchant of Venice one is not able to find so many connections with it and Elizabethan society. Throughout the play Shakespeare seems to be reminding the reader that what is taking place is not real. Magic, the supernatural or unexplained, serves as an aid in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. For example, Oberon uses a supernatural flower, describing it’s magical function to Puck, ‘The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid / Will make a man or woman madly dote / Upon the next live creature it sees’ (II. i.195-197). With the flower in Titania’s eyes she falls for a literal ass and when she realizes what she has done, Oberon inadvertently wins her favour. Even though Oberon himself is one of the many magical characters in the play, he believes he needs what one could call ‘Cupid’s flower’ to aid him. Titania’s ‘good turn’ would not have happened at all if not for the love-stained flower and one can be quite sure Shakespeare never witnessed that in his society! (Bohn, 2) Oberon’s interference with whom Titania falls in love with at first sight is humorous because Oberon chooses a mortal, but transforms his features to make her ‘first sight’ a comical, but intended error. Titania’s mixing with a mere mortal in the form of an ass is something that can be compared to a mixed racial relationship that would not have taken place in Elizabethan society. (Dutton, 135)
Oberon’s prying does not stop with Titania, his concern for Helena and Demetrius is worsened by a mistake made by Puck, ‘What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite / And laid the love-juice on some true-love's sight’ (III. ii.106-107) Originally Demetrius and Lysander love Hermia, but since Puck puts the flower juice on both Demetrius and Lysander, Helena is the one favoured by both men. Oberon’s meddling seems to cause more problems than solutions, but with Puck’s help, they correct it. Thanks to the fairy intervention, all in Shakespeare’s play are happy and finally content with their partner. Overall one might say without magic’s existence in the play, A Midsummer Nights Dream might have been a nightmare.
As can be seen from The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Nights Dream, William Shakespeare was both a man of his Elizabethan society and an incredibly talented playwright. One thing is certain; he will never just be seen as a product of his time or society, there is much more to his writing than that - he, in a way, defines his time.
- Bohn Magi, Life in Elizabethan England, 24 November 2002. Dutton, Richard, William Shakespeare A Literary Life (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1989; repr. 1994, 1996). Holderness, Graham, Shakespeare Recycled ( Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992). Nicoll, Allardyce, Shakespeare In His Own Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964). Shakespeare, William, T. O. Treadwell, ed., A Midsummer Nights Dream (Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall Europe, 1996). Shakespeare, William, Barbara Mowat, ed., The Merchant of Venice (New York: Washington Square Press).