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