Discuss Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’: is he portrayed as victim or villain.

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John McGrath

Shakespeare Assignment

Discuss Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice': is he portrayed as victim or villain.

At the time this play was written anti-Semitism was very common in England. Anti-Semitism is essentially anti Jewish feelings and prejudice towards them. It existed because the Jews were originally seen as 'Christ killers' so therefore the hatred between Christians and Jews has existed ever since then. Nowadays it is not as common as it was in the sixteenth century but it is still prevalent in many parts of the world. Of course racism still exists but Anti-Semitism appears to have decreased in society as time has gone by. The last major case of anti-Semitism was during Hitler's reign as the leader of Germany where he ordered millions of innocent Jewish people to be sent to concentration camps to be executed. Hitler believed that, as the Jewish nation had their land taken from them, that they married into and poisoned nations. Shortly before this play was written Dr Roderigo Lopez was found guilty of treason. He was Portuguese and Jewish and was working as a physician for Queen Elizabeth the first. The trial was rigged and Dr Lopez was to be hung, drawn and quartered. On the scaffold before he was hung he swore that he loved the Queen as much as he loved Jesus Christ! By saying this he was saying that he wanted to convert to Christianity, but the spectators saw this as a confession, that he is guilty, but in a matter of fact the spectators see it as him saying I hate the Queen as much as I hate Jesus Christ. The Jewish people were seen as a race apart. They were feared, disliked, persecuted and nomadic. Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Church, once said: "Know, Christian, that next to the devil has no enemy more cruel, more envious and violent than a true Jew." The Jewish religion was so envied by European society because as a religion they were wealthy, had good jobs, were well educated and the people of Europe were very jealous of this. The stereotype of the Jew was that he was seen as tight with money, (possibly because the only profession which they were legally allowed to follow was to practice usury) seen as money obsessed, hard dealers. This play was very popular amongst Hitler's anti-Semitism and was acted out on many occasions in Germany during Hitler's reign to justify what was being done to the Jews. To prove that even the great William Shakespeare agrees that Jewish people are treacherous and worthless in society. Hitler used the message from this play to get the message across to the people of Germany that what is happening to the Jewish people should happen because they are worthless characters.
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In this play Shakespeare takes the stereotype of the Jew and partially agrees with it but he also challenges the stereotype. He is an entertainer. He wants to give the audience what they want and if society dislikes the Jewish nation then Shakespeare has to give them what they want to watch. Thus Shakespeare gives them a stereotypical villain, a Jew. This is somebody that the audience will recognise and enjoy seeing punished. Shylock in this play is almost like a pantomime villain, a character that the audience would boo and hiss at every time he enters the ...

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