Shylock and the Role of the Jew in Elizabethan Culture Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Shylock and the Role of the Jew in Elizabethan Culture

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It is a known fact that anti-Semitism was practised in England throughout its history, almost to the same degree as that displayed during the Second World War. Forced to wear yellow badges and suffering a gradual loss of rights during the 13th Century, Jews under the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) were then expelled from England for three and a half centuries.

In his 1597 play, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote a comedy about the greed of one Jew, Shylock, in contrast to his portrayal of the kinder, more generous Christians.

But was this really the case?

The Story

During this period, Jews were allowed few roles in society, one of them being a moneylender. Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio (on behalf of Antonio) 3,000 ducats, and as forfeit would have to return a pound of his own flesh if the debt was not repaid. The matter was confidently agreed with Bassanio, with the assumption that he would be able to repay the money once Antonio's ships had returned. However, these ships sink and Antonio is faced with losing a pound of flesh and certain death as a result.

Fortunately, the lovers of Bassanio and Antonio dress up as men and deceive Shylock, telling him that only a pound of flesh should be removed - and no blood. The bond clearly states flesh and not blood. This is impossible and Shylock is faced with the loss of half his property under an agreement with his daughter Jessica. This agreement still stood even though Jessica eloped with Lorenzo, taking a lot of her father's gold and jewellery with her.

Shylock is seen as the villain for demanding the certain death of Bassanio should he fail to repay the sum of 3,000 ducats. But is this entirely fair? What about the treatment meted out to Shylock? The Christian characters despise him and are patronising, showering him with verbal abuse and spitting upon his gown. They are reluctant to pay a debt, even though it was a debt that had been previously agreed to. If they were unwilling to accept the penalty, should they have accepted the money in the first place?

Villain or Victim?

Shylock demands justice. Portia, Bassanio's lover, begs for mercy. But why should she? The agreement was made. Instead, Shylock is undermined, forced to lose his religion and loses most of his material belongings. Take this forward to modern times and the stamp of fascism would be in place. Certainly the forfeit was too much for the money requested, but why should Shylock lose all he holds close: his religion and his money?

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. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. - Shylock

When we consider the perception of Jews of this period - aliens, not even allowed to be citizens in their own home country - who is the villain? A little perspective should be put into place and it is only with a critical modern eye that we can put Shylock's character into perspective too.

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