Shakespeare

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
misconstrued.

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
Venice.

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