William Shakespeare’S The Merchant Of Venice - Shylock
Throughout the course of history, Jews have been relentlessly persecuted. The English are not an exception, since their history shows that the general English attitude towards Jews during the Elizabethan Era is anti-Semitic. This negative bias towards Jews is apparently clear in Elizabethan literature, including William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish antagonist in Shakespeare’s play, is stereotypically portrayed as a villain in accordance to popular prejudice. Thus, Shylock is labeled as a villain because he is a Jew. This misconception of Jews as being villainous in nature persisted well into the 20th century until the recent mass genocide of Jews in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. This appalling incident is the marking point that sensitized the modern reader to Jewish sufferings. Thus, in the eyes of the modern reader, Shylock’s characterization as a villain due to his religious convictions is refuted. Still, it is not only sympathy that deems Shylock as a hero but also the injustice he suffers in the hands of the Christian society which includes his converted daughter Jessica.
Shylock’s character is defended from its villainous interpretation upon two factors: “the sociological, which exonerates Shylock on the basis of environmental pressures, and the racial, which assimilates him to the whole appalling history of anti-Semitism” (1). Based on the racial issue, Shylock’s character is condemned because he is a Jew. Shylock’s role as a villain in the play reflects the general racist prejudices against Jews. Therefore, from his first appearance, Shylock does not have a chance to appeal to the audience. Thus, to the modern reader, Shylock is a victim of injustice which is representative of his race. By understanding the history behind the creation of Shylock, his tribulations can be assimilated to the general Jewish suffering.
Judaism has a long history of persecution. A brief historical analysis of Jewish and Christian relations in England reveals a general anti-Semitic attitude towards the outnumbered Jews. A drastic example of this negative feeling is King Edward the First’s expulsion of the Jews in 1290 which staged a virtual mass deportation of Jews from England. For the next three hundred sixty six years, the Jewish population dramatically decreased to a few hundreds until the reinstatement of Jews back into England in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell. Still, anti-Semitic feelings were strong as illustrated by the popularity of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as well as Marlow’s drama The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare, taking advantage of the public’s anti-Jewish feelings, “borrowed” ideas from his fellow playwright Marlow and designed the character of Shylock. This proved to be advantageous since the play achieved much success and Shakespeare was a major shareholder of his theatrical company (2). Shakespeare’s play was popular not only because it was a well written copyright infringement, but it gave the audience what they wanted. Another example of the popularity of Shakespeare’s play due to its anti-Semitic undertones is the strong protests elicited by the Drury Lane theater when they failed to stage the play during the controversy over the Jew Bill (3). The Jewish Naturalization Bill, or Jew Bill, was simply “a slight alteration in the requirements for how foreign Jews could become naturalized British subjects” (4). Even though the bill was a minor amendment, Englishmen were so adamantly obsessed with the idea of hating Jews that the Jew Bill was finally repealed. Thus, Shylock’s character was created in an era where religious intolerance alienated Jews from the Christian commonwealth.
Based on the sociological factor, Shylock is a sympathetic character because of the environmental pressures in the play. Antonio, Shylock’s mortal enemy, is a prime example of the treatment that Shylock constantly receives in the Christian society of Venice. Antonio holds a personal vendetta towards Shylock simply because he is a Jew; “He hath disgraced me…. thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason” I am a Jew” (III.i. 97). Antonio also wrongs Shylock by hurling insults at him such as “cutthroat dog”, “misbeliever”, and even goes to the extent of spitting on him (I.iii. 35). This is the unfriendly environment that Shylock is staged in. He has no hope for reconciliation with the Christian community because they