William Shakespeare's Shylock: Villain or Victim
In "The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare confronts a considerable issue
of his time, known as Anti Semitism. "Shylock", his stereotypical Jew
lends money to a Christian in an agreement that flesh would be cut
from the Christian's body, should it not be paid.
Looking at the history of Jews in England, it is evident that Jews
were persecuted and murdered up until 1290, when Jews were expelled
from the country. Jews were treated with strong disrespect because of
their alternative religious beliefs, their financial status and
because of their ways of living.
One can safely assume that Shakespeare never actually met a Jew, as
Jews had been expelled three and a half centuries before he lived.
Therefore the stereotypically evil character of the Jew was merely a
myth, passed down through the generations.
Shakespeare obviously intended on demonising the Jew of his play,
making Shylock an outcast to the community of Venice. In England in
the 16th Century, with the absence of Jews, a popular negative image
was created for them. Just as, today, we may imagine aliens to be
estranged to us, enemy to us, and possibly even dangerous; the Jews
were as good as aliens to England four hundred years ago.
There were no Jews around to defend such a bad name, and so their
awarded reputation worsened to stereotype the Jew as a murderer and a
demon. The rumours were exaggerated and invented tales were passed on
through existence. So, when Shakespeare was writing "The Merchant of
Venice" he most probably relied on such fictions to dictate his
character of Shylock. Other writers of his time also made use of the
manufactured Jewish history, writing plays where the Jew starred as
the leading enemy. The Jews were insulted and despised, without even
having to make an appearance in the country! History reminded people
that they had always been prosecuted, and that their rights had always
been restricted. And as the years progressed so, perhaps, the truth
continued to stretch.
Jews, with their different rituals and even language, were forced to
lead a difficult life when finally allowed into England. They were not
allowed to be openly Jewish, and were forced into Christianity. This
meant keeping their actual beliefs hidden from the world that they
knew. Cleverly, Jews attended religious ceremonies in secret and at
night without the Christians' knowledge.
Jews were forced into money lending, which was one of the few
professions open to them. Christians believed that to lend money with
interest was wrong, and so only Jewish would work in those roles. Jews
were mocked, and people were very racist. It was not as easy routine
to live by.
In Venice, "ghettos" were allocated to Italian and German Jews. Italy
did not follow the rule of persecution...