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 upbringing in this
sort of environment brought along the anti-Semitic views expressed in
‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Many Christians in the 1500’s did not have
discriminative views of Jews and Judaism which and this was despite
the medieval stories and plays.
Shakespeare’s inspiration for ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is believed to
have come from other plays and literature which were circulating at
the time. The two main influences are ‘The Jew of Malta’ written by
Christopher Marlowe and ‘Il Pecorone’ written by Giovanni Fiorentino.
‘The Jew of Malta’ is very similar to ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ The
Jew is called Barabas and he poisons the nuns when his daughter runs
away and becomes a nun. The main themes of ‘The Jew of Malta’ are
racial tensions, religious conflict and political unrest which are
very similar to the themes of ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Barabas is a
stereotypical Jew of the time because he is hated, violent and cruel.
One of the main differences between the two plays is that
Shakespeare’s Jew, Shylock, is more of a man than Barabas because
Shylock did not kill people. The plot to ‘Il Pecorone’ is the same as
‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Shylock...