Antisemitism in the Merchant of Venice
The antisemitism in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is well-known and documented by literary critics and historians - Antisemitism in the Merchant of Venice introduction. Shylock, one pf the play’s main characters, is a wealthy Jew whose selfish and avaricious nature is exploited throughout the play to create one of Shakespeare’s notorious villains. This accomplishment to a large extent rests on Shakespeare’s ability to convert the racial stereotypes and prejudices of his Elizabethan audience to an immediately recognizable dramatic idiom. As an ethnic minority in Elizabethan England, Jews found themselves in a typical minority position: that of being a “bogeyman” for the projected fears and stereotypes of the racial majority:
“Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not readmitted until 1656, although we now know there was a community of 80 to 100 Marranos – crypto-Jews living as Christians–in London during Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespeare and the Jews gives us a feel for the culture they found themselves trying to pass in. Shapiro draws heavily on diaries, pamphlets, legal documents, and other nonliterary sources to illustrate his thesis: the “projection of English fantasies onto Jews – or the simulacra of Jews,” as a reviewer of his book in the New Republic put it. (Meyers)
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Because racial stereotyping exerts a profound influence over social (and personal) perception, it is not necessary that stereotypes based on race have any grounding in one’s experience or in the world of fact, whatsoever: “Certain cultural constructs take on the force of myth and become indestructible; they are proof against reality. There are no vampires in America, and yet everyone in the country knows what vampires look like, knows they drink human blood, wear capes, sleep in coffins” and indoctrination into racial stereotyping begins at the earliest ages of perception, “Children are introduced to vampire lore as soon as they are exposed to the Count on Sesame Street” (Meyers).
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Similarly, Shakespeare (or any Elizabethan) would have likely fallen into the trap of regarding Jews as a pastiche of projections and stereotypes, having had little or no occasion to know Jews or Jewish culture. The “simulacrum” thus becomes a reality for both Shakespeare and his audience. During the course of The Merchant of Venice, a plenitude of racial stereotypes are revealed, which indicate the depths to which psychological projection and ignorance had possessed the Elizabethan in regard to the identity of Jews.
The portrayal of Jews via Shylock as the antithesis of everything good and decent in Elizabethan culture is complete; up to and including such trivialities of manners and courtliness,”Shylock, naturally enough, represents the antithesis of this Renaissance courtesy”
and this intimation that such dignities are out of Shylock’s reach do double-duty, by degrading the Jewish character and elevating the nobility of Elizabethan manners “like the Duke does when he talks of “tender courtesy” in relation to “rough hearts of flint,” Shylock evokes the image of Venetian courtesy but troublingly so, in the context of Venetian sadism and persecution when he recalls Antonio’s berating him for practicing usury, his spitting upon him and kicking him. Referring to this abuse, Shylock asks Antonio rhetorically and sarcastically, “and for these courtesies / I’ll lend you thus much moneys?” (Hunt 162)
Many of the play’s characters reveal an overt dislike of Shylock due to his religion, including Antonio – the merchant of Venice – who becomes his Christian enemy. Likewise, Shylock admits that he hates Antonio, “For he is a Christian.” He anticipates Antonio’s death and ultimately Shylock is offered a chance to kill Antonio, when Bassanio goes to his friend Antonio for a loan of money. Antonio’s subsequent debt to Shylock results in Shakespeare’s most devastating and famous racially stereotyped line regarding the “pound of flesh.”
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Though the play is rife with racial and religious stereotypes and prejudices, the projection of these tendencies are also foisted upon the character of Shylock, who is portrayed as religiously bigoted against Christians. When speaking of Antonio, he sneered and told one of his servants, ”I am glad of it. I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it” and his motivation was hatred of the Christians. Similarly, Shylock calls Antonio’s friends, ”Christian fools” and dismisses one of their religious festivals as ”Shallow foppery.” Shylock is shown to be driven by greed and religious prejudice, wanting to “feed fat the ancient grudge” he bore to Antonio.
Shylock is presented as just shy of demonic in the play, this extending to the ambience of the monologues and the meter and diction of the written lines. “Shylock’s voice, Van Doren observed, however differently it might sound in another universe, must, in the world of the play, be “nothing but a snarl, an animal cry sounding outrageously among the flute and recorder voices of persons whose very names, unlike his own, are flowing musical phrases.” This is beautifully and precisely put (Shylock in fact expresses a petulant distaste for music; his speech-rhythms are abrupt, emphatic, and unmusical” (“Who Is Shylock?”).
When Shylock at last discovers that his life is in the hands of the (Christian) judge, he immediately begs mercy. In doing so, he cries for ”Justice” and is thus exposed a hypocrite. In his speech about religious equality, “Hath a Jew not eyes? Hath a Jew not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” the intimation is that his monologue is ironic and that it is the nobility of his Christian judges that triumphs over his own hypocritical and cowardly appeals.
In the end, it is the racially charged and stereotyped portrayal of Shylock trhat invest The Merchant of Venice with its notoriety, “The ultimate power of The Merchant resides in Shylock;
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and Shylock, as the history of the play’s interpretation indicates, is an explosively unstable figure, both as comic villain and as Jew” (“Who Is Shylock?”). Shylock eventually receives mercy from his Christian foes, a capstone to the play’s antisemitic themes. This final gesture of “forgiveness” and “justice” reveals Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience as deeply embedded in the racial and religious biases and stereotypes of their time.
Meyers, William. “Shakespeare, Shylock and the Jews.” Commentary Apr. 1996: 32+.
Hunt, Maurice. “Shakespeare’s Venetian Paradigm: Stereotyping and Sadism in the Merchant of Venice and Othello.” Papers on Language & Literature 39.2 (2003): 162.
“Who Is Shylock?.” Commentary July 1993: 29+.