To what extent is the play a microcosm of the Elizabethan Era?
In Elizabethan England, many of the general public were anti – Semitic and driven by extreme dislike of other religions other than Christianity. This anti – Semitic sensitivity has lasted since the early ages, dating back to 1300 B.C. when the Jews were expelled from Egypt at the end of the nineteenth Dynasty.. Jews were accused of exploiting Christians and they were actually banned from England in 1290, and were not allowed back into England several decades after ‘The Merchant of Venice’ had been written. The Elizabethans were ignorant of the Jewish culture. Shakespeare knew that the majority of the population was Christian and had to write something that was somewhat an outrage to the Jews. So he decided to write the Merchant of Venice, in which he deliberately included stereotypical prejudice to reflect current society. The play in the earlier part of the twentieth century also became very popular in Germany, extreme anti-Semitism being encouraged when Hitler came to power. In recent times the “Holocaust” was our gravest tragedy which in fact was the most brutal and momentous event in Anti-Semitism which really portrayed the true and utter hatred of the Jewish people by the Nazi party.
The character Shylock was a stereotypical Jew of his time, and as Jews were generally ostracized from normal society, the audience would have been familiar and understanding with Shakespeare’s characterisation, actually finding Shylock a comedic figure whereas today he is seen as tragic. In Shakespeare’s time, Jews were not treated well at all. This was because they were a minority group, as they had been previously banned from the country by Edward I unless they were willing to convert to Christianity. But, in large European cities, like Venice there was a large Jewish population. As these cities relied on trade, the authorities encouraged Jews to become moneylenders. This was because the Christian law, which forbade money lending for profit, did not apply to them. Moneylenders were not popular, as up until the late sixteenth century it had been illegal to receive interest on lent money, and even after that, although legal (it became vital for trade), it was considered a sin. Many moneylenders charged high rates of interest, even though the legal rate was ten per cent, as people were willing to pay more, and some became very rich.
The Merchant of Venice was most likely written in either 1596 or 1597, after Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The central plot, with the characters of the merchant, the meagre suitor, the beautiful lady, and the iniquitous Jew, is found in a number of modern-day Italian collected works. Shakespeare used numerous details, such as the choice of caskets that Portia’s father enforces on her suitors, from pre-existing sources. The Merchant of Venice’s Italian setting and marriage plot are typical of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but the characters of Portia, Shakespeare’s first great female protagonist, and the unforgettable rogue Shylock elevate this play to a ground-breaking division.
Shylock is an unforgettable figure in English Literature as his cries for Antonio’s flesh, have much been scrutinised by those of the Elizabethan era casting him as a villain and seeking him as a brute. The readers of today however feel that Shylock, an honourable man, is momentous and truly compassionate. The play has been debated as to whether or not it endorses the anti-Semitism of the Christian characters in the play. The Jews of Shakespeare’s time were a subsidiary group and irrelevant to society. Many had mocked them and stereotyped these people as “gluttonous” and “uncouth.” For example, The Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe was a great success which was about a brutal and murderous Jewish Villain. Shakespeare certainly draws in on this particular character and brings him from just a “puppet” to real life....
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