"The Merchant of Venice" and Anti-Semitic beliefs.

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Shakespeare’s Jew: Discrimination or Trend?In William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock seems to be a character of significance. This is due to the way Shakespeare portrays him, Shylock is seen as the villain; the character who receives a punishment much deserved because of his actions throughout the play. But why does Shakespeare portray him as such? Does Shakespeare have a personal vendetta against Jewish people? Or is he following a trend that occurred thousands of years before his time and thousands of years after?In the Norton text Thomas Calvert examines how Jews were treated in earlier centuries. Because they murdered Christ he says, Christians had the utmost hatred for the Jews. Calvert claims that “Venice such a year the Jews were commanded to wear a yellow hat that they might be known from Christians” (123). They also lived in separate dwellings to further segregate them from the Christians.

They led difficult lives due to a tragic event that took place thousands of years earlier. “Sometimes they were accused for poisoning of wells and springs to make an end of Christians” (123). Could this be a reason for Shakespeare’s discrimination against Shylock throughout the play? Possibly, although the murder of Christ occurred thousands of years before, it’s still a fact that Jewish people killed Christ. I wouldn’t blame Shakespeare for being anti-Semitic towards people of the Jewish faith because the crime they committed is unforgiveable.

What exactly is anti-Semitism? Derek Cohen explains it as “A work of art as one that portrays Jews in a way that makes them objects of antipathy to readers and spectators-objects of scorn, hatred, laughter, or contempt” (194). Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic? This is a well-rounded definition that explains anti-Semitism to a “T”, but I don’t feel Shakespeare fits this definition. “The Merchant of Venice” certainly suggests he was anti-Semitic. The first indication that he very well may be, are the number of times he uses the word Jew or a variation of it; which Cohen says is 58. For example, Portia calls Shylock by his name only twice in the court scene, all other times she calls him Jew. Cohen states “The reason for this discrimination is, of course to set Shylock apart from the other characters” (195). Because the word “Jew” is used in such a large quantity Cohen suggests that there is an “Anti-Jewish implication already and automatically assumed” (195). I’m not sure I completely agree with this statement, because Shakespeare may have wanted the reader or audience to interpret the word “Jew” as a negative connotation. But I feel it’s up to the reader or audience to interpret it as they wish. The second indication is during Act II scene i Antonio says “Hie thee gentle Jew. / The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind” (II. i. 173-174). Antonio is being very sarcastic towards Shylock and his Jewishness. The third is when Launcelot associates the Jew and the Devil. This in my mind is the most anti-Semitic comment throughout the play. I feel this way due to the face that the devil is the anti-Christ; and to associate a Jew with the devil is to say the Jew is the anti-Christ also. Although there are many more indications throughout the play, these are the ones that Cohen describes and ironically the ones that stick out in my mind.

Shylock gets abused throughout the whole play and at first I was compelled to pity him, but when I took a closer look at the play I started to realize he’s just a bad person with a damaged character, who deserves every ounce of discrimination he receives. But I’m not so sure Shakespeare wants me to perceive that way.

There are two scenes in the play when shylock is pitied and you think that Shakespeare may not be anti-Semitic. One incident is when Salerio torments Shylock when Jessica has eloped. “Shylock: You knew, none so well as you of / my daughter’s flight.” (III. i. 21-22) Salerio: That’s certain. I, for my part, knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal” (III. i. 23-24). In his article “The Merchant of Venice Shylock: Villain or Victim?” Giorgio Lombardi states “Salerio and Solanio seek to torment him when he is most vulnerable”, I somewhat agree that it seems he is verbally abused when he is in a helpless position. The second scene, the court scene, only because he is quiet throughout this scene. Cohen states “Shylock becomes a sympathetic figure in his still and silent transformation from a crowing blood-hungry monster into a quiescent victim whose fate lies in the hands of those he had attempted to destroy” (201). I too, feel this is a situation in the play to pity Shylock and think that maybe he realizes the wrong-doings he has committed. Another circumstance Lombardi wants us to consider is the fact that “The laws at the time the play was written were in favor of the Christians. Jews had few rights; they could not claim inalienable citizenship in any country and they depended on the mercy of the society that they lived in” (2). This is an excellent fact to consider because Shakespeare could have been following a trend popular at the time rather than being anti-Semitic.

The very end of the play could exonerate Shakespeare from the assumption of being anti-Semitic, because he shows us that he realizes Shylock is only human and no human is perfect. But Cohen suggests that this is realization is a contradiction and a “betrayal of the truth” (206). I disagree with this because I feel he “humanizes” Shylock at the plays end to show that an evil person can transform and learn from his mistake. I think the truth is, is that Shylock is a bad person; but people can hit rock bottom and change because of it and that’s what I feel happens to Shylock. Because of this, I feel that Shakespeare knows he contradicted himself but sees it as more the moral of the story rather than a contradiction. Cohen also says this about the play “The Merchant of Venice”, which I do agree with: “It is as though “The Merchant of Venice” is an anti-Semitic play written by an author who is no anti-Semite-but an author who has been willing to use the cruel stereotypes of that ideology for mercenary and artistic purposes” (206), I feel this is exactly what Shakespeare is trying to tell us when reading/seeing this play.

Throughout literally history and history itself Jews have been the center of ridicule. Edgar Rosenberg states that “Jew in English literature has been depressingly uniform and static phenomenon” (297). I find this to be true due to the fact that Jews have been scrutinized in literature for centuries. Between the death of Christ, this very poem, and the Holocaust, it seems that Christians have a vendetta against Jews. But I feel it’s more of a miserable, depressing coincidence rather than a vendetta.

So is Shakespeare anti-Semitic? That’s a question only the man himself can answer, while we can only speculate from here on out. In my personal opinion I don’t feel Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, because this is the only play that could possibly be derived from anti-Semitism; his other plays aren’t focused in this direction. I feel he was just following a trend and creating a play that would appeal to audiences, which he obviously succeeded; due to the face that this play has been around for hundreds of years. This play was created for entertainment and artistic purposes, not as a vendetta against the Jewish faith and the people who believe in this faith.

Works Cited:W. W. Norton and Company, INC. “The Merchant of Venice,” A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Leah Marcus. New York-London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. 17-37Calvert, Thomas. “Causes of the Miseries of the Jews” The Merchant of Venice: A NortonCritical Edition. Ed. Leah Marcus. New York-London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 123-24Cohen, Derek. “Shylock and the Idea of the Jew” The Merchant of Venice: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Leah Marcus. New York-London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 193-206Lombardi, Giorgio. “The Merchant of Venice-Shylock Villain or Victim?” TJ 53 (2002): 492-94.

Rosenberg, Edgar. “From Shylock to Svengali” Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction. Ed. Stanford University Press. California: Stanford University Press, 1960. 297-98.