Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
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At the time the play was set Jews were considered 'second class'
citizens in Venice despite the fact that Venice was famous for its
quality of justice.
There was a lot of prejudice against the Jewish minority and they were
even forced by the Venetian government to obey special laws. These
consisted of wearing distinctive clothing such as coloured arm bands,
not being able to be involved in trades such as the military, the
government and guilds and most of all they were forbidden to retaliate
in any circumstances to the way Christians treated them. These laws
meant that most Jews lead a very restricted lifestyle and were often
singled out from the rest of the Venetian citizens.
The history of Jews around the world is a very cruel and complex one.
Jewish persecution dates right back to the middle ages. The Christian
church thought that they should be despised for rejecting Jesus. They
began spreading rumours about Jews killing children at pass over and
using their blood to make unleavened bread. During the fourteenth
century, Europe was gripped by fear of the Black Death. Christians did
not miss this newfound opportunity to spread anti-Semitist ideas, they
accused the Jews of poisoning wells and so anti-Jewish stereotypes
were reinforced. Christians thought themselves superior to all other
faiths and the hatred and persecution they inflicted on Jews was
Jews were tolerated in Venice but made to live in the original walled
Ghetto; this isolated them from the rest of Venetian society. Shylock
is a Jewish money- lender living in Venice during the sixteenth
century who has a bad reputation in Elizabethan society and is hated
for his greed and religion. The fact that he is a Jew means he is
subjected to prejudice from the Christians that live in Venice giving
him a very low status in society. It is very clear that the most
important aspect of Shylock's life (apart from his wealth) is his
religion. Throughout the book we see how proud Shylock is to be a Jew
and is humiliated and ashamed by his daughter when she denounces her
Jewish faith, 'she is dammed for it, my own flesh and blood to rebel'.
We also know that Judaism descends through the mother line so when
Jessica converts to Christianity she denies her father of an heir.
Attitudes to Shylock have changed dramatically over time, a
seventeenth century audience would feel almost no sympathy towards
Shylock as they were used to prejudice against Jews and probably took
part in it themselves. However in today's society people are more
inclined to feel sorry for this naïve, misguided soul driven to
revenge by mindless...