The Merchant of Venice: Is Shylock a villain or a victim who deserves our sympathy

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Is Shylock a villain or a victim who deserves out sympathy?

By Daniel Griffin


   The Holocaust was a period of time from the late 1930's to the middle 1940's where Germany, who had just lost the war, decided to try to make Germany pure, and in doing so, exterminated 6 million Jews.  Their idea of a perfect person was one who had blonde hair and blue eyes.  However, the hatred and anti-semitism towards the Jews didn't start here.  It started a long time back, around the time of the 11th century.  Near the end of the 11th century, the Christian church taught its followers that usury was morally wrong, and that Christians were forbidden from doing so.  Jews, not included in that rule, but barred from most other professions, turned towards usury as a way of earning money.  The Christian church, a lot different to what it is today, taught that Jews should be despised for their rejection of Jesus, to do with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The persecution of the Jews was at an early stage when Christians, after being influenced by the Church,  spread lies about Jews, saying that they killed Christian children during Passover, and used the blood to make unleavened bread, which in its own way was morally wrong, and something Jesus did not teach to his followers.  The term “blood libel” led to such travesties as the mass-suicide of Jews in York in 1190, and many anti-Jewish riots during the 12th century Crusades.  After several kings had imposed heavy taxes on Jews, probably because they were Jewish firstly, and secondly to increase Royal Revenue, Edward I was the king who would get rid of most of the Jews who lived in England, in 1190, and those who remained were forced to wear a badge of identification from 1220 (similar to the time spent in the ghettoes during the Holocaust).

   The opportunity to be anti-semetic (towards Jews) was rarely let by, as during the 14th century, as Europe was gripped with fear due to the Black Death, Jews were blamed for these deaths because they poisoned wells because – as the argument goes – the superior hygiene of the Jews, along with their better diet, meant they were less like to catch the disease, and therefore did this out of hate, a ludicrous theory.  Even during the period of the 14th to 17th centuries, when Jews were largely absent, anti-Jews stereotypes were created by the church.  You can see a major difference from the Church now, to the church only 400 years ago>  Two or three years before the first showing of 'The Merchant of Venice', a controversial event happened, possibly bigger than any other of the events I have noted in this introduction, bar perhaps the Holocaust or the mass-suicide in York in 1190.  A Portuguese Jew, Dr Rodrigo (or Ruy) Lopez, who had converted to Christianity already, was accused of trying to poison Queen Elizabeth.  The trial was notable for the amount of anti-semitism in it, even the judge, supposed to be impartial, called him “that vile Jew”, and, despite Queen Elizabeth herself trying to stop the execution, Lopez was hung in June 1594.

   Venice, however, was a much safer place to be in if you were a Jew.  Their strict, impartial laws gave foreign traders and people the confidence that they would be treated as equally as possibly.  Unlike many other Christian countries, Venice did not accept the belief that Jews should be persecuted or hounded, and gave them certain legal right, at a monetary cost however.  The life of a Jew in Venice was a nice one.  They had been allocated a district, the Ghetto Nuevo (new iron foundry) where they could run what happened in that certain section of Venice.  However, there were drawbacks to this.  They had to be locked up in the ghetto at night and on Christian holidays, and were obliged to brick up any windows facing outside of the ghetto.  Jews were also made to wear a yellow spot, or when covered, a yellow hat or turban, to identify themselves.  This reminds us of the Star of David worn on the arms of the Jews during the Holocaust.  However, during Shakespeare's time, most of these restrictions were lifted, and Venice had the Jews to thank for making them a more reputable place, for reasons such as learning, money-lending for the poor, and for bringing a great deal of trade to the city

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Shylock: Villain or Victim?

   In Act 1, Scene 3, we get our first introductions of Shylock, a money-lending Jew, currently living in Venice.  He seems to be a good person when discussing the loan with Bassanio, showing a peaceful kind of man in him, and complimenting Antonio, although his compliment was a sarcastic one, Bassanio might not have got this.  Shylock explains that his interpretation of a good man in Antonio was that he had enough money to repay the loan, although is aware of the doubts concerning his finances.  He comments on how he has squandered ...

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