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

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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 almost 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]” (Boyce 417).

William Shakespeare shows 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” (Pietscher 214)(sic). 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 felt in England, about Jews. Shylock, a very wealthy merchant, is hated in Venice because of his cruelty. Shylock’s daughter Jessica, his own flesh and blood, hates him so much that she robs him and runs away to marry a Christian, Lorenzo. Shylock, being selfish and ignorant, is more upset about the stolen « my gold, my ducats » than about his daughter.

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 65).”

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 people close to Shylock do 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 were Christians, Shakespeare has Shylock offending Christians by saying, “[…] gaze on CHRISTIAN FOOLS with varnished face […]” (Merchant 80) (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 195) (sic). 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 47).

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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, 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 the play where Shylock is comparing his nationality to Christians:
I am a Jew. Hath ...

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