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A Study of Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice

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A Study of Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice

‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written by Shakespeare in 1596 and

appeals to both audiences of comedy and tragedy. The play features

anti-Semitism which is a response to 1500’s Britain as well as other

literature of the time. Anti-Semitism is the term used to describe

discrimination towards Jews and Judaism. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ has

received both positive and negative comments over the centuries and

throughout this essay I will look at some of these. I will also look

at reasons why Shakespeare wrote an anti-Semitic play and what other

similar literature there was at the time of writing.

At the time of writing Queen Elizabeth the First was in reign and the

country was Christian. Protestant more than any other form as

Catholicism was banned by the Queen. Some people of the time were also

anti-Semitic and this was only heightened by the case of Rodrigo

Lopez. He was the Queen’s physician and was hung for supposed plotting

against the Queen even though he was considered innocent by many. The

Judge called him “That vile Jew” and he was hanged for being a Jew.

This is an example of the treatment of Jews at the time. It is very

important to stress that not everyone was anti-Semitic at the time.

Many people of Shakespeare’s time did not know what a Jew looked like

and only had medieval tales of Jews drinking the blood of Christian

children to base their opinions on; despite human sacrifice been

against the Jewish faith. This is why so much hostility was held for

Rodrigo Lopez and these stories were very much still believed during

Shakespeare’s childhood and it is thought that an upbringin...

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...hakespeare, I think, is using current affairs of the 1500’s as well

along with other literature to create a play of the moment.

Shakespeare also took the views of the general public and created a

play that people would go to see. The popularity of the Rodrigo Lopez

case meant that hatred of Jews was a big seller in Elizabethan

England. It is important to remember that anti-Semitism is something

that still exists but the prejudice of the 16th century has been

diminished. The holocaust of the 20th century is the biggest attack on

the Jewish faith and is, hopefully, the last time anti-Semitic

prejudice is inflicted on the rest of the world. I don’t believe

Shakespeare was personally anti-semitic but I do believe he used the

mob mentality and anti-Semitic views of 16th century England to sell

tickets and gain popularity.
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