Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice
Anti-Semitism, which has often been called the longest hatred (a comment on the unbelievably long time jews have been prosecuted as the bane of the earth), has recurred in society for centuries. Since before medieval times, Jews have been accused of treacherous acts which include the murder of Jesus, the Bubonic plague, poisoning wells and controlling all monetary aspects in people’s lives with the act of usury. Accusations like these have lasted throughout history because of misunderstanding and the retardation of interpretations of events in history which have led to feelings of fear and hatred.
Anti-Semitism, specifically in Elizabethan times, was unbelievably prominent throughout Europe. Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is a classic example of the anti-Semitic beliefs many people carried during the era. The abusiveness of all the characters towards the lead Jewish role of Shylock gives us insight into the opinions people had about the Jew’s role as a money lender and as a part of the population. As it is very clear that there are deep-rooted anti-Semitic ideas which appear abundantly throughout the play, the dehumanization of the character of Shylock shows that the play is meant to be flatly anti-Semitic.
As most of the characters demonstrate great prejudice against Jews throughout the play, the word ‘Jew’ is used by them to give incredibly negative connotations and its repetition is a defining factor in the degradation of the word and the dehumanization of Shylock. As Derek Cohen in his book Jewish Presences in English Literature explains, “The word Jew is used fifty-eight times in The Merchant of Venice. Varients of the word like Jewess, Jew’s, and Jewish are used fourteen times; Hebrew is used twice. There are, then, seventy-four direct uses of Jew and unambiguously related words in the play. Since it can readily be acknowledged that Shakespeare understood the dramatic and rhetorical power of iteration, it must follow that there is a deliberate reason for the frequency of the use of the word in the play. And as in all of Shakespeare’s plays, that reason is to surround and inform the term with associations which, as it is used, come more and more easily to mind.” (27)
In essence, Shakespeare uses the word “jew” whenever any of the characters identify Shylock in order to allow the audience to identify him first as a jew and not as a human being with a name. The word, apparently used neutrally in the early moments of the play, gains significance as it is repeated and becomes a term with additional meaning. Therefore, according to Cohen, “The word Jew has strongly negative implications in The Merchant of Venice.” (27) It is significant that Shylock is addressed formally as “Shylock” only seventeen times in the play and then when he is addressed as “Jew” fifty-eight times there is always a degrading term behind or in front of the word.
It is also significant that Shakespeare uses the metaphor of the Jew as a dog in the play to make him seem worthless and to justify the right of Antonio and his friends to kick and spit on him. For example, when Antonio comes with Bassanio to get the loan from Shylock, Shylock is surprised but also quite cynical about the ordeal for it is revealed then that Antonio has many times disgraced him in public. Shylock says, “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog/ and spet upon [his] Jewish gaberdine,/ and all for use of that which is mine own./ ... you spet on me on Wednesday last,/ you spurned me such a day, another time/ you call me dog; and for these courtesies/ I’ll lend you thus such moneys?” (I. iii. 108-10, 123-26) Antonio’s repeated beatings of Shylock and his insults toward Shylock as a dog to his face are another example of how Shakespeare dehumanizes ‘the Jew’ in his play in order to keep up with the anti-Semitic theme.
Although identified as an animal or a “thing” throughout most of the...