Shakespeares 'The Merchant of Venice'

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The character of Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (c.1597) has always raised questions about the anti-Semitic content of Shakespeare's play. In order to examine this, comparisons need to be made between the context in which Shakespeare was writing and the present day.

Introduction


However, the very mention and repetition of references to Shylock as a Jew suggests that Shakespeare intended to draw on anti-Jewish sentiments predominant in England at that time. Also referred to as The Jew of Venice, Shakespeare's play has similarities with Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (c.1590) in which Marlowe depicts a Jew called Barrabas being boiled in a cauldron by Christians. Although Marlowe's play has been accused of anti-Semitism, like Shylock, Barrabas is not a straightforward character but reveals humanity as well as ruthlessness. The character of Shylock also bears close resemblance to Roderigo Lopez, the personal physician to Queen Elizabeth and a Jew by faith. He was hugely unpopular at the time, being accused of poisoning the Queen. Lopez' execution and Marlowe's play helped fuel anti-Semitism in late 16th-century England.
Since the reign of Richard I, Jews were regarded as pagans and greedy usurers and they were banished from England during the time of Edward I and only allowed to return under Cromwell's rule during the seventeenth century. Thus, very few Jews lived in England during Shakespeare's time and those who did were condemned to wear red hats or wigs, and yellow strips of cloth, to distinguish them from the Christians who would not associate with them socially. ...
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