Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice was written between 1596 and1600. At this point Queen Elizabeth I is queen; the first real English queen to have stayed in power for a long time.
Shylock is a Jew. Jews have suffered horrible persecutions-starting in earnest 1500 years ago. The Romans chased the Jews out of Israel because they were not Catholic-this is called the Diaspora. Throughout history, Jews have frequently been prevented from doing certain businesses or owning land-so few money making options were open to them. They were, however, allowed to lend money and charge interest on it, sometimes called usury. Christians were forbidden the charging of interest by the New Testament and thought of usury as sinful. Public perception of the Jews was not helped by the fact that many Jews became rich through money lending thus creating the impression that they were making money out of other people's debts/misfortunes.
In addition, many Christians believed that Jews are responsible for Jesus' death for a number of reasons:
There are sections in the Bible which show the Jews as having a key role in his death.
Many of Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with 'Passion Plays', as in The Passion of the Christ. These were violent depictions of Jesus' crucifixion that blamed the Jews for his death.
Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries would have been aware of the legend of Little St Hugh; a child allegedly 'crucified' by a Jew in 1255. A boy was indeed found dead and a Jew, under threat of torture, confessed to the murder. However, Henry III helped exacerbated the scandal by arresting 90 Jews and sending them to the Tower of London where 18 were killed. It is no small coincidence that he confiscated the land and wealth of the...