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An Exploration of the character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

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An Exploration of the character Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" J.R Brown writes in his introduction to "The Merchant of Venice" that as modern readers we "carry our knowledge of the holocaust throughout the text." Due to the atrocities of the Nazi regime, modern readers are quick to sympathise with the play's Jewish character Shylock and pity his isolation and rejection by Christian society. However when examining Shylock, we must distance ourselves from current, more enlightened attitudes towards the Jewish people and closely analyse the use of language in the text within its historical context so that we may fully appreciate the character Shakespeare wished to portray to his audience, that of "the devil Jew." Before exploring the character of Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" it is necessary to frame the tale by briefly examining the period in which Shakespeare was writing so that we may understand as E.E Stoll writes "the soil from which the character of Shylock grew." The play was probably written between 1596 and 1598. Despite the debates over the specific date of production there are several more general historical points that must be taken into consideration when exploring the play - particularly in its portrayal of the Jews. Although officially Jews had been banned from England in 1290 and were not formally admitted until the latter days of Cromwell's rule, Jews were a well known part of life in London. ...read more.


Amongst the Elizabethan public there existed the belief that Jews relished in eating Christian flesh, with a particular liking for Christian hearts. Countless contemporary dramas involving Jews demonstrate this point. In John Day's "Travels of Three English Gentlemen," The Jewish Character Zeriph remarks: Sweet Gold, sweete jewel! But the sweetest Part of a Jewes feast is a Christian heart! Throughout the play Shakespeare reinforces this view and presents Shylock as almost hungering for Antonio's flesh. He remarks that he intends to take a pound of flesh "nearest his heart" and comes disconcertingly close to describing a "Jewes feast" in Act 3 scene 1 by remarking Antonio's flesh shall "feed" his revenge. This again can be seen as evidence of Shakespeare using common Jewish prejudice to isolate Shylock from the Christian audience and ensure he is disliked and that his downfall brings about a comic and satisfying ending. One final superstition that Shakespeare employed when creating Shylock is that of Jews as allies with Satan. In popular Elizabethan drama it was typical for Jews to make deals such as allowing demons to inhabit their bodies for a period of time in exchange for money and power. Often these plans were to the detriment of the Christian characters in the play. In Marlowe's "Jew of Malta," the character Ferneze remarks that "in the name of the devil, Barabas has stained his hands with blood many times." Throughout the play, Shakespeare repeatedly makes use of this common belief to help portray his stereotypical comic villain. ...read more.


The playwright uses Antonio's charitableness to ensure that the play ends on a note highlighting the "difference of spirit" between the Christian and Jewish peoples. Contemporary audiences would have left consistent in their belief that Christians were altruistic and "turned the other cheek" following mercy and love as guiding principles whereas Jews sought revenge and money. Although Shylock is not perhaps as monstrous or as simple as most contemporary Jewish villains in Elizabethan drama, his language and actions demonstrate that he was devised by Shakespeare to be held in contempt by his audience. Shylock as a character obeys all of the common stereotypes towards Jews in his avarice, simplicity of language, fondness of Christian hearts and rumoured dealings with the Devil. Shakespeare as a dramatist could not have played a lone hand in the creation of a Jewish character, but rather Shylock is a hybrid of the creative genius of the playwright and the historical framework - both literary and political - in which he lived. Despite our more enlightened views on Jewish people we must appreciate Shakespeare as a product of his own times who was well aware of both the established traditions of his art and the rooted prejudices of his public. Indeed it is with great reluctance that we state Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, who used popular prejudice for popular plays however we must follow Alexander Pope's advice: A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit With the same Spirit that its Author writ Word count 2550 ...read more.

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