The Merchant of Venice

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Written by William Shakespeare around 1597, The Merchant of Venice is a "comedy" about a bitter and detested Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who seeks revenge against a Christian merchant who has defaulted on a loan. Before we can even address these questions, it's important to know about the historical circumstances of the play. For Shakespeare, writing to an English audience about a Jewish moneylender might have seemed unusual. Officially, there were no Jews in 16th century England because they had been banished in 1290 under the Edict of Expulsion. Some studies suggest there were fewer than 200 Jews in Elizabethan England (only about 100 have been identified by historians). Most of these Jews were outwardly practicing Christians and many of them were probably Marranos (Jews who practiced their religion in secret). Jews were a popular target of hatred in Shakespeare's England in large part due the trial of Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a converted Portuguese Jew (and a Marrano). In 1594 Lopez was convicted of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth I and was executed as a traitor – meaning he was hanged, cut down (while still alive), and mutilated before a crowd of vengeful spectators. The Lopez trial and execution inspired the revival of playwright Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1589), in which the play's title character is a Jew named Barabas, a greedy, cunning, and murderous stereotype. In other words, Barabas fit the bill of "stock" Jewish characters that Elizabethan theatergoers of the time loved to hate. Since there were no actual Jews publicly living in England, the worst kinds of stereotypes and legends about the entire group could prevail unchecked. Jews were accused of everything from sacrificing kidnapped Christian children on Easter to killing adult Christians for their blood to be used in Passover rituals. Christopher Marlowe's play, and his inexplicably evil Jewish villain, sparked English thinking about the long-absent...