Friday, May 13, 2011


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Anti-Jewish or Anti Semitic or Neither - The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare, having spent most of his youth in England, was influenced by England’s beliefs. England was going through a Christian reformation that had caused friction between Christians and Jews. Jews and Christians did not see eye to eye on most everything and especially on usury, the practice of lending money with interest. Boyce, a Shakespearean critique, sums up the negative attitude that Christians had on Jews in the 16th Century.

“Sixteenth-Century Englishmen tended to attribute to Jews only two important characteristics, both negative first, that Jews detested Christians and gave much energy to devising evils for gentiles to undergo, and second, that Jews practiced usury. The latter assumption was grounded in an old reluctance on the part of Christians to lend money [with interest]”.

William Shakespeare shoes his anti-Jewish attitude by condemning the practice of usury in The Merchant of Venice. He accomplishes this by using a Jewish character named Shylock. According to Pietscher “[Shakespeare chose Shylock] in accordance with the views of his day he took him very naturally from the race of Jews”. Due to Shakespeare using a Jewish man, Shylock, and portraying him negatively shows that The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Jewish play.

William Shakespeare uses Shylock to represent the negative mind-set felt in England about Jews. Shylock, a very wealthy merchant, is hated in Venice because of his cruelty. Shylock’s daughter, his own flesh and blood, hates him so much that She robs him and runs away to marry a Christian. Shylock, being selfish and ignorant, is more upset about the stolen money than about his daughter running away.

Shylock’s slave Lancelot does not like his master either. The play quotes him saying, “Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew my master. My master’s a very Jew give him a present! Give him a halter I am famished in his service you may tell every finger I have with my ribs (Shakespeare).” Lancelot is justifying why he should leave his Jewish master. He explains that his master does not deserve a present but a noose. He condemns his master about being abusive by starving him. This paints a vivid picture of how even the close people to Shylock don not like him. Shakespeare goes on giving the audience more of a reason to hate this Jewish man. Knowing that the majority of the audience was Christian, Shakespeare has Shylock offending Christians by saying, “[…] gaze on CHRISTIAN FOOLS with varnished face […]” (Merchant) (emphasis added). William Hazlitt agrees by writing, “Shylock is a good hater; ‘a man no less sinned against than sinning.’ […] with the proud spirit hid beneath his “Jewish gaberdine” by one lawful act of ‘lawful’ revenge […]” (Hazlitt). Bender describes Shylock, as “The Jew is wicked, unhappy, usurious, greedy, vengeful. The Christians are happy, generous, forgiving. This, it might be said, is the plain meaning of the play” (Swisher).

Many agree with Bender that the play was supposed to be a slam against the Jews and that Shakespeare was being anti-Jewish, but a few would disagree. Martin Yaffe debates that Shakespeare was pro-Jewish. He said that Shakespeare was not showing a typical Jew but a “bad Jew”. He argues that Shakespeare was trying to get the audience to be sympathetic toward Jews and that he was trying to get Christians to understand that Jews are similar to them. He backs this up with a quote from his play where Shylock is comparing him to Christians

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (Luxon)

This aspect is often refuted by the argument that Shylock was trying to justify his wrongdoing and get sympathy from the duke and the rest of the people.

Shakespeare wrongfully diminishes Jews in the Merchant of Venice. His views fit in to the culture from when he wrote the play, but is obviously anti-Jewish. Many historians agree with Thomas Luxon (graduate from Dartmouth) when he wrote, “I prefer the term anti-Jewish to anti-Semitic as a description of the attitude that are the focus of this essay because the latter implies attitudes based on late modern notions of race. The anti-Jewish attitudes depicted and endorsed by this play are more about theology, religion, and nation than about race as we conceive of it […] (Luxon).

Works Cited

Boyce, Charles. “The Merchant of Venice” Shakespeare A to Z. A Roundtable Press Book, 10. 415-41.

Hazlitt, William. “Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays” (1817). Rpt in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Mark W. Scott. Detroit Vol. 4. Detroit Gale.

Luxon, Thomas H. “A Second Daniel The Jew and the “True Jew” in The Merchant of Venice”.

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Pietscher. “Confessions of Faith or nationalities.” Pettifogging Trick (1981). Rpt in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Mark W. Scott. Detroit Vol. 4. Detroit Gale.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York Hutchinson.

Swisher, Clarice. Readings on The Merchant of Venice. The Greenhaven Press, Sand Diego.

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