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Antisemitism in Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice"

Updated on September 4, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Shylock and his scale from The Merchant of Venice
Shylock and his scale from The Merchant of Venice | Source

William Shakespeare wasn’t above using stereotypes in his plays. He was, after all, writing popular stories that the audience of the time could relate to. And, when the audience saw a sniveling, conniving moneylender plotting a hideous revenge against the main character, the Elizabethan audience knew exactly that this character was the villain. After all, he fit the profile of that era’s most stereotypical nemesis, the “Jew.”

Antisemitism is not a trait often associated with a Shakespearean play. However, one can’t escape it in The Merchant of Venice. To Shakespeare’s credit, Shylock was a dynamic character who was driven more by revenge than outright evil. In fact, he appeared to be this way due to mistreatment and discrimination from the Christian citizens he lived with. Thus, despite being a villain, he was someone the audience of the time could have sympathized with.

However, it was uncertain if Shakespeare’s intention was for the audience to feel any sympathy toward him. There was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. From an age-old myth of the Jews’ supposed role in Jesus’ death to a political scandal of the time, there was plenty of fuel to fire up antisemitism among the vast majority of Elizabethan England. And, possibly, Shakespeare was not only aware of it; he may have supported this view

After a complex plot that involves his own daughter and the son of the governor, he turned to murder his own child. Why?

Source:The Jew of Malta

Shakespeare drew upon two sources for Shylock. The first was a play written by his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, called The Jew of Malta. Marlowe’s play was a hit with the audience of its time. The story was about a Jewish merchant named Barbaras who, after losing his wealth to a Turkish sultan and the governor of Malta, plotted a no-holds-barred (and intricate) plot to bring down those men. He displayed great amount of debauchery and evil in doing so.

After a complex plot that involved his own daughter and the son of the governor, he turned to murder his own child. Why? Upon learning she was a pawn in her father’s plot, she left for the nunnery to become a Christian. As a result, Barbaras had her and the other nuns poisoned -- along with a few friars who were aware of the plot.

Later, he forced the downfall of the governor by helping the Turkish Army. Then, he did an about-face and persuaded the Knights of Malta to slaughter the Turks.

However, in a version of Elizabethan karma, the citizne of Malta killed Barbaras. In the end, the anti-hero, Barbaras, came out of the situation being more evil than those who had done harm to him.

Also, originally posted on loyalbooks.com
Also, originally posted on loyalbooks.com

The Jew of Malta was a morality tale about the evil of vengeance and power. Whether intentional or not, the main character of the story happened to be Jewish. And, with Antisemitism firmly rooted in the public – even in a place with relatively few, if any, Jewish citizens in England at the time – the audience easily associated Judaism with the evils that the characters created.

A Folktale and Chaucer Become Inspiration for Shylock

The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta weren’t the only classic English literary tales to be associated with antisemitism. One such example came from Geoffrey Chaucer’s collection, The Canterbury Tales.The Nunn’s Tale” – with the nun telling it in a bizarre and serene tone - told a tale about how the death of a boy led to the extermination of a Jewish community (which was a “happy” ending).

This particular story was actually a popular folklore that was passed on as fact during Chaucer’s time. And, the story would keep feeding many who would believe it for years to come (It should also be noted that a law passed in 1290 banished Jews from England until their formal resettlement in 1655; however, there were a few notable Jewish figures in the country during this period).

Lopez was very wealthy and powerful. He also passed himself off as a Protestant. Still, there were many who knew he was a Jew, and would use this fact against him in later years.

The Trial of Dr. Rodrigo Lopez

Another influence and possibly the prototype for Shylock, was the scandal and trial of Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s personal doctor. Dr. Lopez (or Lopes) was formally a Portuguese physician who had been raised as a “New Christian.” This was a term given to Jews or Muslims who had recently converted to Roman Catholicism. They didn’t do this out of choice; they did it to avoid persecution by the Roman Catholic Church and it inquisitions.

Driven out of the country by the Portuguese Inquisition, he came to London where he quickly rose to prominence. Eventually, he became the Queen’s physician-in-chief in 1586. By earning her favor, Lopez was granted a monopoly on the importation of aniseed and sumac.

Lopez was very wealthy and powerful. He also passed himself off as a Protestant. Still, there were many who knew he was a Jew, and would use this fact against him in later years.

Shylock: Stereotype of Sympathetic Character?

Was Shylock a stereotypical villain of the time or a sympathetic character

See results

But the good times didn’t last. He was accused of conspiring with Spanish emissaries to poison the Queen. The accusation came from questionable people with political motivations that would have placed them in a position of power. He was arrested on January 1, 1594 and was convicted a month later.

Despite the Queen’s uncertainty of his guilt, and Lopez’s insistence of being innocent as well as his admission to being Jewish, he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Many citizens in England didn’t shed tears for him. For them, he was guilty as charged. Even his last word – or gasp to save his life – in which he uttered he “loved Jesus” -- was met with laughter and ridicule. Also, the already fragile and dim view of Jews became worse than before.

Shylock Comes to Fruition

Despite these influences, Shylock still evolved into his own character. In The Merchant of Venice, he became an opportunist who sought his chance to exact revenge upon Christians who had wronged him in the past. When Antonio, a Christian, asked for money, Shylock agreed to lend it to him on one condition: if the debt was not repaid by a certain date the debtor would forfeit a pound of flesh.

In "Act I, Scene III", Shylock revealed his pain, anger and desire for revenge – and ultimately planned to get it – in a long soliloquy. He also revealed the differences between Christians and Jews and the distrust that existed between the two groups.

This was a revelation. Shylock started off as a stock, stereotype figure. But, this soliloquy revealed new dimensions to this character. He was not scheming for evil’s sake. He did so because he had felt the pain of hate and discrimination, and now wanted revenge (this might have made some Elizabethan side with Shylock).

C. Macklin's Shylock, circa 1767
C. Macklin's Shylock, circa 1767 | Source

Sympathy for Shylock, or Not?

Did Shakespeare meant to create a sympathetic character or was he trying to create a despicable villain that his audience could jeer at? This question doesn’t seem easy to answer. Most likely, he used a little of both to create Shylock.

He was more believable and human than most villains that were portrayed on the stage. However, he had the hallmarks of the times that defined a villain. Unfortunately, it marked a group of people as being evil, whether Shakespeare meant it or not.

© 2017 Dean Traylor

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    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 6 months ago

      Dean, I've never been a great fan of Shakespeare because I don't enjoy the old language. I think I would enjoy his stories if they were rewritten into our modern day language. Anyway, I did enjoy your synopses of these old tales. And you do bring up a couple of good questions. Of course we have no way of knowing what the Elizabethans were really thinking. I've seen our own history in this country distorted because the younger people weren't able to walk in shoes that people my age walked in. Good job!