Merchant of Venice

Questioning Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice has been interpreted over time as both a defense and an attack on Jews. (“Shylock”) While it would seem improbable that Shakespeare was forward thinking enough to completely reject the anti-Semitic sentiment of his time, the play is too complex to be classified as a simple attack on Jews. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was not written to make a precise statement about anti-Semitism, but instead was written to push his audiences to question their own preconceived notions about Jews in England during the Renaissance.

There is no doubt that Shylock is not a pleasant character. As the play progresses, he goes from simply scheming about getting revenge on the Christians to becoming fanatical about killing Antonio. The portrayal of Shylock as a devious and scheming Jew who is virtually a “devil” would have greatly appealed to the anti-Semitic audiences of Shakespeare’s time. (“Shylock”) However, if this was Shakespeare’s sole intention, he could have easily made the character of Shylock both single-dimensional and an excessive caricature of a Jew. Instead, Shylock is a fascinating and multi-layered character. In Act III, he gives a powerful speech about acceptance that is difficult to ignore: “Hath not a...

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