Written by: Matthew Wisnefsky
This April 23rd was the 457th anniversary of the birth of one of the world’s greatest writers and playwrights, William Shakespeare. His comedies, tragedies, and poetry continue to captivate audiences as much as when they were first performed in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s work is not without controversy, however, and given the recent cultural shift to increased accountability, it is important that we reconsider Shakespeare’s work, especially with a special focus on its depiction of Jews.
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most highly regarded comedies. It tells the story of Antonio, who borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for his friend Bassanio so that Bassanio can attempt to marry the wealthy Portia. For security against the loan, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Ultimately, Bassanio successfully gets Portia to fall in love with him, and when Antonio is unable to repay, Portia tricks Shylock in court, and he is forced to convert to Christianity.
Shakespeare almost certainly never actually interacted with any Jews, since they had been expelled from England in 1290. Thus, any beliefs he held about them would be rooted in deeply antisemitic stereotypes, such as that which informs the character of Shylock.
The idea of Jews being greedy moneylenders or usurers, as Shylock is depicted, has been one of many violent antisemitic tropes. In Europe in the Middle Ages, Jews were prohibited from working in almost all industries. Since usury was prohibited in Christianity, and moneylending was considered a “dirty industry,” money lending was one of the few industries where Jews were allowed to work. Very soon, the stereotype of the “greedy Jew” developed, inherently because of the position Jews were forced to be in.
As an additional anti-Semitic element, at the end of the play, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, thereby promoting the image of Judaism as inherently bad and Christianity as an inherent good. It encourages the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity as a means of punishment. In the Middle Ages, to be European was to be Christian; for any Jew to physically exist in Europe posed a contradiction to this view of what Europe should be. If Jews were not mass murdered, or expelled, then they were forcibly converted.
While I ultimately do not support removing The Merchant of Venice from literary pedagogy entirely, it behooves us to engage critically with this play, and with Shakespeare himself. We must read the play in conjunction with learning about the violent persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages. One scholar I recommend reading on the history of Jewish persecution is Sylvia Tomasch and her piece “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew.” While this essay is not directly about Shakespeare, it speaks about how the negative image of the Jew continued to be perpetuated in society even after Jews were expelled. Additionally, James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews explores The Merchant of Venice in greater detail, considering how Jews were imagined and depicted in Elizabethan England.