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Shakespeare’s Portrayal of Jews

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, there are, as is typical of

Shakespeare, several different themes. One that emerges at the beginning and is

present throughout the rest of the play is anti-semitism. Many of the people of

Shakespeare’s time shared the belief that Jewish people were inferior to

Christians, a belief reaching far back to ancient times. To these prejudiced

people, the Jewish character of Shylock appears to posses the typical negative

qualities of Jews. However, today’s audience is better able to see that these

qualities are stereotypical and not at all typical. Further analysis has also

led to controversy about whether the "Merchant of Venice" supports

anti-semitism or attempts to expose it as a misconception. William Shakespeare

portrays the life of a Jew in his work, The Merchant of Venice. When the play is

first read, Shylock, the Jew is the villian, but he is also a man that has been

persecuted all of his life because of his Jewish background. The Englishmen that

lived during Shakespeare’s time viewed Jews as moneylenders, devils, and an

inferior race. Some of their conceptions of the Jews were true, while some were


Regardless of how it is portrayed in The Merchant of Venice, anti-semitism

has its roots in a time long before Shakespeare. Rabbi Roth says that anti-semitism

dates back to ancient civilizations who shared different beliefs. One such

example is Rome. The Romans believed in several gods, so they strongly opposed

Judaism and they resented Jews, believing that they must convert these misguided

people. Later, Christians grew to dislike the Jews because of their opposing

view on Christ. Christianity stemmed from Judaism, and the Christians believed

themselves a perfection of the Jewish religion. They, too, viewed the Jews as

people that needed converting, and took it upon themselves to convert the Jewish

population. These negative views of the Jews led to

many hardships brought upon the Jewish people, including the exile of the

Jews from England three hundred years before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of


Jews have been persecuted throughout all time and in England it started in

1290 under Edward IV. He deported all the Jews living in England to France. Not

until Cromwell’s Commonwealth in 1656 were Jews allowed to establish communities

in England. However, there was a case just before Shakespeare wrote the Merchant

of Venice, of Queen Elizabeth’s physician. He was a converted Jew and was

condemned to death for conspiracy against the Queen’s life and the trial brought

forth all of the old accusations against the Jewish people. During this time

laws were passed that that placed special restrictions on where Jews lived,

curtailed their social and economic interactions with Christians, and increased

pressure on Jews to convert to Christianity. The Crusades were a turning point

in the history of anti-Jewish feeling because they set off a wave of riots that

killed many Jews and forced more to flee from Western Europe to Eastern Europe.

Myths and superstitions grew in the Middle Ages about the Jews. Jews were blamed

for disasters that could not be explained, an example of which would be the

Black Plague. Even though the Jews died from the plague also, it did not deter

the accusations made against them for the thousands that died.

When the play was written, the Jews would still remain in exile from England

for another fifty years. This is also a major source of the false beliefs and

misconceptions that comprised the anti-semetic beliefs of that time period. Many

of these anti-semites had never actually seen a Jew. Therefore, they simply

accepted all of the myths about the Jews because they had no basis for

comparison. For instance, one of these beliefs was that all Jews were black, and

that they possessed an awful smell. This was certainly not

true, but it is an example of what the people of the Elizabethan time period

thought of the Jews. They were willing to believe the negatives about the Jews

because they were supposedly the enemies of Christianity, something probably

preached by the Church leaders in their attempt to eliminate Judaism. The

characteristics in The Merchant of Venice are no different. The story takes

place in Italy, but the people there seem to share the same opinion of the Jews.

They are all living in the ghettos, virtually forced to live there because of

the disapproval of the Venetian citizens. Their lifestyle is looked down upon

because it is against The Law of God. Usury, the practice of lending money for

interest is considered a sin. Many of the Jews practice this simply because they

are forced to. However, this is not realized by the others, and it is evident by

Antonio and Bassanio’s treatment of Shylock prior to the deal. Shylock’s

sentence at the end of the trial is also a fine example of the sentiment toward

Jews at the time.

To the sixteenth century audience that first was seen The Merchant of Venice,

the character of Shylock would have appeared to have been a typical Jew. To the

modern day audience, he is a collection of stereotypes stemming from the anti-sematic

beliefs of the Elizabethan period which were shared by the English population,

and as some critics argue, even Shakespeare. But a closer look reveals that

Shakespeare understood the reasons for the characteristics of Jew such as

Shylock who was misunderstood because of anti-semitism.

In The Merchant of Venice’s beginning, Shakespeare makes it obvious that

Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian. But it also apparent that he

also hates Antonio because he and Bassanio have proclaimed their disapproval of

him publicly, despite the fact that they have no understanding of his reasons

for his particular lifestyle.

His penalty for not fulfilling the contract of exacting on ounce of flesh

from Antonio, would seem to be another negative attribute of a Jewish person,

but it is only driven by his anger at a people who treat him cruelly without

knowing anything about him. Further into the story, he appears malicious and

with no mercy when he refuses to accept offerings of up to ten times the

original amount of the deal, just so that he can carry out the original

punishment agreed upon. It is this greed that eventually does him in, however.

After the aforementioned incidents, it would appear that Shylock is indeed the

Jew portrayed by anti-semitic beliefs. But he is simply an oppressed individual

driven by a desire to get back at the same people who are mistreating him by

using their own laws against them. Any person from any other religion or ethnic

group could arguably be expected to react similarly, and this is what

Shakespeare was probably portraying. He certainly makes this view clear with

Shylock’s address to the courtroom in which he proclaims the similarities that

he and the rest of them share, despite the fact that he is a Jew. Some modern

audiences view this simply as his deceitful way to gain sympathy from the jury.

In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a moneylender of prominent wealth and

stature. Jews were allowed into Great Britain by Henry I only if they would give

a percentage of their profits from trade and moneylending. This agreement and

the tariffs placed on the Jews forced the Jews to have such high interest rates

on their deals that they might have a little profit for themselves. They became

famous for their usury. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassino needs money so that

he can court Portia, the woman that he loves. Bassino goes to his dear friend

Antonio and asks for his help and Antonio takes him to Shylock. Shylock is

hesitant at first because Antonio hindered him in business and humiliated him in

public. He hates Antonio for spitting on him and calling

him names such as "dog" and "cutthroat Jew". Shylock

wants revenge for what Antonio did to him and for all the persecutions that he

as a Jew has gone through. A lot of anger has built up in Shylock towards the


I hate him for he is a Christian;

If I can catch him once upon the hip,

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

He hates our sacred nation…

Cursed be my tribe it I forgive him (1.3. 40-49)

He articulates how much Shylock hates Christians and also Antonio. Shylock


makes a deal with Antonio. He will lend money to him only if he he pays him

back in

three months and if he is not paid by then, then Antonio owes him a pound of


This pound of flesh is what Shylock calls "merry flesh" or rather

flesh for the fun of it. He tries to make a joke but he seriously means to take

a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shakespeare seems to portray the English view of

the Jews as devils. Old stories that were passed down through generations

portrayed Jews as "blood-thirsty murderers" that poisoned wells and

killed Christian children for their Passover rituals. This is view is only

enhanced by Shylock’s little speech after he finds out of Antonio’s financial


I’m very glad of it. I’ll plague him, I’ll

Torture him, I am glad of it. (3.1. 116-17)

This shows the "murderous" side of Shylock and also a little of the

devilish side.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare portrays the beliefs of anti-semitism

of the Elizabethan time period, although a closer analysis proves what is true

of all of Shakespeare’s works: there is more meaning than the literal word. The

Jewish people were persecuted by the English, but more in general by the

Christians. There is still controversy on whether or not Shakespeare was anti-semetic

or not, and for that matter if The Merchant of Venice was intended to be.

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