Determining Whether there is a Presence of Anti-Semitism in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
It is quite clear when reading The Merchant of Venice that there is a
large focus on Shylock being a Jew. This is very prominent in his "I
am a Jew" speech he, the Jewish moneylender, angry and betrayed, rails
against the non-Jewish world which torments him. Antonio "hath
disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my
friends, heated mine enemies - and what's his reason? I am a Jew," he
exclaims. Then comes the famous speech. "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not
a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passionsâ€¦."
However from this alone we cannot decide if Shakespeare's play is anti
In Shakespeare's day, anti-Semitism was all the rage in England.
Despite the fact that Jews had been kicked out of the country three
hundred years previously by the Edict of York, hatred for them
remained powerful. Ten generations of Englishmen had never seen or
talked to a Jew, but that didn't stop them from thinking Jews were
evil, smelt bad, committed ritual murder and had other salacious
Elizabethans didn't wash. Queen Elizabeth herself was considered a
little quirky for insisting that she took a bath once a year. But it
was a well known fact that Jews bathed - Jewish women once a month in
the ritual mikve, and Jewish men just before the Sabbath. Somehow the
general public knew that the immersions in water were related to the
monthly cycle - so they firmly believed that Jewish men menstruated
too - and every week!
It was in this climate that Shakespeare wrote his plays. Pandering to
the taste of his audience, he stuck in many lines that may be seen as
anti Semitic. "If I do not love her I am a Jew," proclaims Benedick
about Beatrice; meaning that if he does not love her he is a
scoundrel. In "Macbeth," the witches intone "Liver of blaspheming Jew"
as they pop another vile ingredient into their cauldron. Servants
invite each other for drinks, stating that one who refuses the offer
is "a Jew." Portia, in her impassioned speech about mercy: "The
quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain
from heaven" changes her tune when it is her turn to be merciful. "Not
so fast, Jew". to Shylock, as she relentlessly increases his
punishment. This is a concrete example of why maybe Shylock is the way
he is: "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard
but I will better the instruction."
I would argue, despite the anti Semitic content of some of the scenes
in this play, that the play is not solely anti Semitic or that
Shakespeare is so. At first it may appear that Shakespeare is merely
building the play up to show a cantankerous Jew who...