In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, there are quite a few cases in which the non-Christian characters are marginalized and victimized of Christian prejudice and absolute racism. The Christian prejudice and racial discrimination transpires through the use of language and terms of reference. In sixteenth-century Europe, Jews were a despised and persecuted minority. England, in fact, went beyond mere persecution and harassment by banning Jews from the country altogether. In theory at least, there were no Jews at all in England in Shakespeare’s time, and there had not been since the year 1290 when they were officially expelled by King Edward I. For some time it was thought that Shakespeare had never actually met a Jew and must have created the character of Shylock of The Merchant of Venice entirely from his imagination, however it is now believed that this was not necessarily the case. Despite what the law said, there was a small community of Spanish Jews living in London during Shakespeare’s time. These exiles from Spain managed to evade the intent of the law by nominally converting to Christianity. Shakespeare may have been aware of this community, and possibly even have known some of its members. However, there is a reason to believe that he viewed the existence of Jews in London as a major social problem. During Shakespeare’s time the English people viewed the Portuguese and the Spanish, their national enemies and rivals in trade, with great distrust. In any event, the most influential models for the character of Shylock were no doubt drawn from literature, not real life. The Jewish villain was a stock character in medieval literature. Medieval passion plays, reenactments of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, invariably portrayed the disloyal disciple Judas Iscariot as a stereotypical Jew. Of course, historically, Jesus and all of his disciples were Jewish, but this was ignored. Subsequent authors, when they portrayed Jewish characters at all, they always cast them as villains. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender in Venice. He is annoyed and frustrated by his mistreatment at the hands of Antonio and Christians of Venice. Shylock makes a scheme to take his revenge by demanding a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment. Sometimes, he moves away from his inhuman monster character and reveals himself as a quite human. These contradictions of his characters and his powerful expressions of hatred gave him a place as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. He is a spokesman of the Jewish race. In his famous speech, he asks; Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. (Act II, Scene I )
Here Shylock speaks in a convincing manner about the rights of the Jews and shows him as a representative the much-abused Jewish race. It is needless to say that The Merchant of Venice is concerned with Jewry and Usury that were of significance in the Elizabethan Age. It is usually assumed that the Elizabethan attitude to Jewry was hostile and that the capital punishment of Roderigo Lopez in 1594 was characteristic of the Christian rejection of all ‘Jews, Turks, Infidels and Heretics’, who were considered to be “misbelievers”. However this could also be a false supposition because though the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to live in England, once they did they were generally left alone. Marlowe in The Jew of Malta portrays a Machiavellian...
Cited: Auden, W. H. Love and Usury in The Merchant of Venice.” ed. by Frank Kermode. New York: Avon, 1965.
Charlton, H. B. Shakespearean Comedy. New York: Methuen, 1988.
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of The Merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Grebanier, Bernard. The Truth About Shylock. New York: Random House, 1962.
Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
Lelyveld, Toby. Shylock on the Stage. London: Routledge, 1961.
Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings: New York: Atheneum, 1971.
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