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Shakespeare And Anti-Semitism In The Merchant Of Venice

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Anti-Semitism and the desecration of the Jewish population have been in existence for nearly five thousand years. In the Elizabethan era, a question of anti-Semitism invariably arises. In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, we find that one of the characters is the embodiment and expression of anti-Semitic attitude that is pervasive in Elizabethan society. "Anti-Semitism was an intricate part in Shakespeare's years. Jews were considered vile and scorned upon. Shakespeare presents Judaism as an 'unchangeable trait'" (Bloom 37). Shakespeare's age based their anti-Semitism on religious grounds because the Elizabethans inherited the fiction, fabricated by the early Church, that the Jews murdered Christ and were therefore in league with the devil and were actively working to subvert spread of Christianity. The religious grounds of this anti-Semitism means that if a Jew converted to Christianity, as Shylock is forced to do in The Merchant of Venice, then all will be forgiven as the repentant Jew is embraced by the arms of the all merciful Christian God of love. In fact, some Christian believed--as do some fundamentalist sects today--that the coming of the Kingdom of God was aided by converting the Jews to Christianity. Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's time is portrayed in his masterpiece The Merchant of Venice.

"Shylock the Jew, one of William Shakespeare's profoundly ambivalent villains, is strangely isolated" (Bloom 24). He is portrayed as a usurer: A leader of money on interest rather than a receiver of stolen goods. This concept will prove to the audience that the Jews are in fact "cheap" and have a frugal sense for possessions. It is an intriguing idea to think that even in Shakespeare's time, stereotyping was a mundane part of their lives. Shakespeare's anti-Semitism seems harsh, but shows that not all Jews are vile like most people believed in his time. Shylock is shown to be hard working (Goddard 5). Believe it or not, there is some compassion for the desecration of the Jews in Shakespeare's play.

Antonio recognizes the futility of opposing Shylock's passion with reason. "He seems the depository of the vengeance of his race" (Goddard 11). Antonio consequently appears as a charitable Christian who lends money freely, in contrast to the miserly an...

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...an something like Marlowe's Barabas.
But at the same time, it seems clear (to me, at least) that Shakespeare creates Shylock against an historical and cultural backdrop that was intensely hostile to Jews. Given this social context and historical tradition, it should come as no surprise if some of this hostility against Jews should infiltrate Shakespeare's work. Shakespeare was, after all, a commercial dramatist and many commercial dramatists make their livings by pandering to, rather than working against, conventional social mores.
To make the claim that Shakespeare creates Shylock within an anti-Semitic culture, and therefore invests Shylock with biased anti-Semitic attributes, does not impugn the artistry of the drama. Nor does such a claim implicate Shakespeare himself as a monstrous anti-Semite. All this claim suggests is that Shakespeare, like most of the rest of his society, was hostile toward Jewry for religious and cultural reasons, and that hostility is revealed most clearly in Shylock.
What these pages have tried to trace is the possible, or perhaps the probable, relationship between what was happening in Shakespeare's day and what is happening in Shakespeare's play.