Merchant of Venice

The Monster in the Man - Rediscovering Shylock

Perhaps no other play in Shakespeare's repertoire has provoked greater controversy regarding its fundamental moral and religious attitudes than The Merchant of Venice. To understand Shakespeare's treatment of the Jews in this play, we need to understand Judaism as seen in the Elizabethan era. The Jews, expelled from England in 1290, did not return until 1656. As a literary and social convention, the Jew was a numinous figure more like a monster than a social stereotype such as a "hillbilly" or a "nerd." Many Christians came to believe Jews had cloven feet and a tail, and that they suffered from an innate bad smell and from diseases of the blood, for which they sought remedies in vampirism. With these ideas in mind, many scholars, directors, and students have examined the bard's intention, attempting to deduce whether the playwright needed a villain his audience would immediately hate or a villain who, despite his faults, is understandable.

There are at least two positions commonly adopted regarding anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. The first perspective confirms that the play has strong anti-Semitic themes and suggests that chastising the Jew for his inherent evilness was an act of great...

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