The Merchant of Venice was written sometime between 1596 and 1598. Its genre has come under fire because while it sort of meets all the requirements to be a comedy, it is a ‘problem play’, a play that raises more questions than it answers (Truxler Coleman, 1992). Some also have trouble calling it a comedy because of its inherent anti-Semitism. The Merchant of Venice is set in in the cultural melting pot of Venice as well as in Belmont. The role of Venice as a setting is interesting because it was supposedly more religiously and racially tolerant place (Chambers, 1970) and Jewish people were allowed to live in Venice during Shakespearean times , unlike in England.
In 1290, after centuries of persecution of the Jews in England, Edward I declared an Edict of Expulsion, banishing all Jews from England. Jews were completely expelled until 1657 (Shapiro, 1996). This means that, unlike Catholicism in Othello, the convergence of England to a Jewish state was not a fear in English eyes. However, because there were no Jews in England it is unlikely that most people in England during the time in which Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice had even met a Jewish person, Shakespeare included, so all most knew about the Jews came from stereotypes of the time. The misconception that Jewish people had killed Christ, the myth of Jewish ritual murder and blood libel, and other ‘anti-Semitic canards’, defined as “unfounded rumours” in relation to Jewish people (Merriam Webster online), were in circulation during this time (Shapiro, 1996). This is evident in the play, as Shylock demands a blood libel from Antonio for his debt. It is especially evil because Shylock evidently does not care about getting the money; he just really wants to gruesomely murder Antonio (2.2.48-50). Shakespeare probably only had those stereotypes at his disposal. Also, as evidenced by Othello, the end of the Elizabethan era was a time of religious unease where any religion other than Christianity was looked down on. It is commonly said that fear and intolerance breeds hate - and in Shakespeare’s case, this reigns true.
The full title of the play itself “The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant etc. (title page of first quarto) makes Shylock seem like a nasty character and right as the audience are introduced to Shylock they see him as being a corrupt man. He is money loving and Christian hating. He wants Christian blood literally with the pound of flesh he vows to take from Antonio (2.2.48-50).
Shakespeare was not likely aiming to be entirely hateful towards Jews. It was more likely that Shakespeare wanted to give as many bad qualities to Shylock as possible and Judaism was just one of them. There are certain aspects of the play that could equate Judaism to being bad. Shakespeare probably added these in to solidify the fact that Shylock was a wicked person by making Judaism seem depraved as well. He needed to...