Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird and William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice are texts written in different centuries. However, both texts highlight the same issues in the society in which they are based. Shakespeare highlights the prejudice and stereotypes of the 16th century Venetians, while Lee explores the same in the American South during the 1930s. An analysis of this themes in both texts highlights similarities and differences. However, despite the similarities and differences, these texts are connected. William Shakespeare and Harper Lee show that prejudice and stereotypes are cyclical phenomena, and only through breaking the cycle can they be overcome.
To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with racial prejudice. Blacks are perceived as belonging to the bottom of the social class just below "white trash". Prejudice is usually connected with stereotypes. For instance, in To Kill a Mocking Bird, blacks are perceived as liars, "immoral " and the men can never be "trusted around [white] women" (64). These stereotypes enhance prejudice as people cannot get over the preconceived idea about a particular race denying members of that group the opportunity to be treated as individuals. The same phenomenon is seen in Merchant of Venice where Jews and Christians treat each other not like individuals with distinguishing characteristics, but as groups with a predetermined set of characteristics.
Mayella, just like her father, does not care for blacks. She blatantly lies that Robinson had raped her leading to his death. Her father is described as an ignorant and short-tempered man (11). Bob Ewell vows revenge on Atticus for what he perceived as Atticus role in making him look bad. Ewell attempts to grab and stab Atticus children when the neighbor comes in time to save them. The prejudice of the father is transferred to the children and the cycle continues. However, Antonio and Atticus attempt to break this cycle. By showing Shylock some mercy, Antonio breaks the chain of hatred brought about by prejudice. On the other hand, Atticus chooses education as the tool to break the cycle. He reads newspapers to his children and objectively answers their questions, such as those concerning the jurys verdict. As a result, the children become informed and less likely to practice prejudice, which usually stems from ignorance.
To Kill a Mockingbird highlights racial prejudice as the main type of prejudice among the southern community featured. On the other hand, Shlock chooses to deal with prejudice against religion. Although each text deals with a different type of prejudice, both Lee and Shakespeare uses one character to represent the group which suffers discrimination. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson represents blacks, a minority group that suffers untold injustices, while in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock represents Jews. As a result of the prejudice against Jews and blacks, Shlock and Robinson have to endure segregation, stereotyping, violence and inequality. When referring to Antonio, Shylock claims that he hates [Antonio] for he is a Christian (1.2.42). He dislikes Antonio so much that he claims that he can never forgive him, and if he ever forgives Antonio, his tribe should be cursed. Shylock perceives Antonio as an embodiment of everything that is wrong with Christians. On the other hand, Antonio cannot conceal his disgust for Shylock. When he borrows Shylock money and is reminded of how he had mistreated Shylock, he claims that he will spit on [Shylock] again, and spurn [him] too (1.3.141). It is evident that Antonio is not apologetic for his arrogance or appalling behavior.
Trials are used in both texts as the epitome of prejudice. Both texts use trials to highlights the depths of prejudice in the respective societies. In both trials, the verdict was made not because of the evidence provided but based on the predetermined ideas of the accused and accuser. Mayella gets a favorable verdict due to her skin color, while the court rules in Antonios favor due to his religion. Although Atticus provides sufficient evidence to show that Robinson could not have committed the crimes, the system is already tainted and rules against Robinson. Shylock had persevered years of mistreatments from Christians, he was freely abused because of his religion. When Antonio forfeited the bond, it gave Shlock the opportunity to repay in kind. However, during the trial scene, it was evident that his wish could not come true. The segregation continued as the audience as well as the judge kept referring him to the Jew, depicting him as other. It was therefore inevitable that the court ruling not only denied him justice, but it punished him by taking his wealth and forcing him to convert to Christianity.
The major type of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird is racial prejudice, whereas prejudice based on religion is prominent in The Merchant of Venice. Although both texts concentrate on different forms of discrimination, they both use a single character to expound on their theme. Additionally, both texts use a trial scene to show how social systems are also part of the problem. Although both texts show how prejudice begets prejudice and its cyclic nature, they also illustrate that this cycle can be broken. Antonio and Atticus act as change agents.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird, Penguin Books, 1968.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, Blackie & Son, 1869.
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