(Student’s Full Name)
“He [that is, Antonio] hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million—laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” (Merchant of Venice, 3.1.42-46)
The above lines were borrowed from the famous speech made by Shylock in William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. This speech by Shylock was his attempt at demonstrating his humanity and to encourage the audience to sympathize with his condition as a person who is discriminated on the basis of his race during the Elizabethan period. The socio-cultural environment of the Elizabethan era, which informed Shakespeare writing of the play, undoubtedly inspired the portrayal of the character, Shylock. According to Simon Roker in his article, “How Elizabethan Society Responded to Jews and Prejudice” in the Jewish Chronicle, the play was staged after the hanging of Roderigo Lopez (who was a professed Christian), who was Queen Elizabeth's doctor (par. 8). He was tried and charged for poisoning the Queen on “behalf of the Spanish” (Roker par. 8). There is no question that this stirred feelings of prejudice, hostility, and antagonism towards Jews. Although it is argued that Shakespeare did not portray outright anti-Semitic feelings in Merchant of Venice, even in his depiction of the character Shylock, as antagonistic feelings towards this character were triggered mainly by the negative attitudes the Elizabethan audience had towards his profession rather than his 'Jewishness', which is a prominent feature of modern anti-Semitism, there are, however, some implications of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, which were influenced by feelings of prejudice towards the Jews during the Elizabethan era because Jews were often despised for being greedy, as they were associated with the money-lending profession, one of the few occupations they were allowed to have during the Elizabethan period and Jews, during this period, were considered heretics for practicing a religion apart from Christianity.
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
I would introduce my argument with the definition of the concept of anti-Semitism. After which I will illustrate the historical context which led Elizabethans to adopting an anti-Semitic view. Additionally, I will expose the anti-Semitic ideas and concepts present within Merchant of Venice with support from quotes in the text. Simultaneously, I will make connections to the anti-Semitism ideology present within the Elizabethan society with several plausible reasons for the adoption of such an ideology by the Elizabethans. I expect, through my research, to find scholarly views which support my position.
THE DEFINITION OF ANTI-SEMITISM
According to the Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, anti-Semitism is defined as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” It explains further that anti-Semitism not only includes discrimination against Jews but also Arabs and other Semites (par. 1). The Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary noted that hostility towards the Jews in particular “emerged because of religious differences, a situation worsened as a result of competition with Christianity” (par. 1).
The Expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I in Medieval Times. According to the Elizabethan Era website, in 1255 some Jews “were imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution for the alleged murder of Hugh of Lincoln” (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17). After their imprisonment, eighteen Jews were chosen to be hanged (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17). The website explains that anti-Semitic feelings continued to grow until in 1270 until King Edward decreed that Jews were considered a dangerous threat to the English Medieval society (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17). Afterwards, they were required by the king to wear yellow badges, which were star-shaped to “identify them in public” (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17). The website explains further that “heads of Jewish households were arrested, many taken to the Tower and executed” (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17). All of these negative attitudes towards Jews came to a climax when King Edward I decreed the total expulsion of Jews in 1290 (“History of the Persecution of English Jews 1290-1655” par. 17).
Jews Being Branded as Religious Heretics during the Medieval Era. As indicated previously, anti-Semitism emerged as a result of “religious differences,” and this was evident during the Medieval and Renaissance Periods. The Elizabethan Era website explains further that during the Medieval period Jews were branded by Catholics as religious heretics in Europe (“The Reputation of Jews in Elizabethan England” par. 18). They were usually burned at the stake by Catholics after a lengthy inquisition, along with other heretics, such as Protestants (“The Reputation of Jews in Elizabethan England” par. 18). Christians even blamed the Jews for causing the Bubonic Plague or Black Death, which killed many Christians during the Medieval Period (“The Reputation of Jews in Elizabethan England” par. 18).
Societal Restrictions Placed on the Jew during the Elizabethan Period. As a result of the expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I in 1290, there were very few Jews in Elizabethan England. The Elizabethan Era website noted that were restricted to having only two occupations: “money-lending and [being] peddlars” (“Queen Elizabeth I and the Jews” par. 20). It can be argued that the profession of money-lending impacted negatively on the Elizabethan’s perception of a Jewish person, since money-lending was viewed as an immoral act. This point is validated by the following quote made by Warren D. Smith in his article “Shakespeare’s Shylock,” which was a part of the Shakespeare Quarterly (Summer 1964): “On the authority of Aristotle, the Bible, the Church, usury, it is well known, was condemned by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as both unnatural and irreligious” (194-195). Smith noted that even after Queen Elizabeth I sanctioned usury at an “interest rate of ten per cent” in 1570, it still was not accepted by the “English public as either a lawful or moral vocation” (195). It was even considered by Elizabethans as “thievery or murder” (Smith 195).
The Execution of Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I’s Doctor. In the New Swan Shakespeare Edition of the Merchant of Venice, the editor, Bernard Lott mentioned that in 1594, Roderigo Lopez (who was alluded to earlier) was a “Portuguese Jewish doctor who was a physician to the reigning Queen Elizabeth I,” who was said to have been accused by the Earl of Essex for plotting to kill the queen (xiv). Lott posited that the Earl of Essex was possibly motivated by jealousy of the doctor’s “power” that “he might have had over the queen” (xiv). Francis Mowang Ganyi explains in his article, “The Jews as Racial ‘Villain’: A Historico-Generic Interpretation of Shylock, Iago, and Barrabas as Victims of Racial Circumstances in Elizabethan Drama” explains that the “Lopez case, fired by anti-Jewish sentiment, certainly generated an expansive wave of anti-Semitism in the West” (124). Furthermore, Dr. Lopez case informs of the belief of various critics who believe that the play, Merchant of Venice, was created by Shakespeare to pander to the anti-Semitic sentiments of the Elizabethans which were recently stirred during that time. Joseph Pearce’s introduction of the book, The Merchant of Venice: with Contemporary Criticism, noted that at Dr. Lopez’s execution “a large crowd bayed for his blood and bellowed anti-Semitic abuse” (ix). Moreover, it should be noted that it might have been possible that Shakespeare may have never met a Jew, as posited by Howard Jacobson in Kunal Dutta’s “Howard Jacobson takes on ‘anti-Semitism’ in Re-write of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice.’” Mr. Jacobson notes the following realities pertaining to Shakespeare’s time during his interview: “‘Mr. Shakespeare probably never met a Jew, the Holocaust has not yet happened, and anti-Semitism did not have a name’” (Dutta par. 3). Therefore, within the context of Merchant of Venice’s initial performance, the closest that most Elizabethans have ever come close to knowing about a Jew is while familiarizing themselves with the Dr. Lopez case. It can be argued that the Elizabethan, out of ignorance of the Jewish race, felt the need to gain an understanding of this ethnic and religious group through his artistic expressions.
The Depiction of Jews in Elizabethan Drama and Literature. Pearce in his introduction to the book, The Merchant of Venice: with Contemporary Criticism, mentions that the acting company, The Admiral’s Men, “revived Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta as an entrepreneurial response to the tide of anti-Semitism that was sweeping through London” (ix-x). Pearce noted that the play was a “huge success, playing to fifteen times to packed houses during 1594” (x). Pearce concluded that Shakespeare may have been inspired by the financial success of Marlowe’s play and decided to “cash in on the upsurge of anti-Semitism by writing his own play about a villainous Jew” (x). Additionally, Ganyi noted in his article that there were two roles ascribed to the Jewish villain in literature: one being a murderer and the other being a “usurer” (124). Ganyi argues that the Jew’s display of materialism which enabled him to display a “pattern of relentless material acquisition naturally pitched them against all other racial groups and even against themselves, many of whom became unfortunate victims of this quest for wealth” (125). The author explains further that “Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlowe’s Barabbas achieve villainous status specifically for this relentless tendency” (Gayani 125). A Jew being converted to a Christian was the only form of redemption that he could hope to gain within the Elizabethan society, and this form of redemption is demonstrated clearly in Act four, Scene one, Lines 376-389. It can be argued that this conversion was enforced on Shylock after he lost his case with Antonio, who he wanted a pound of flesh from as recompense three thousand ducats, which Antonio was unable to pay back. Consequently, art imitates reality within the Elizabethan context, as the Jew was expected to convert to Christianity and become New Christians or Marranos (that is, secret Jews) to be accepted by the broader society, and to successfully assimilate in it (Smith 193). Additionally, Marion D. Perret explains in his article “Shakespeare’s Jew: Preconception and Performance” that the point which illustrates the fact that “anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s day was not based on race is important because it explains why Elizabethans could respond to some actions, such as Shylock’s conversion under pressure” (261). Jonathon Miller asserts that, “if the Jew’s fault stems from his failure to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah,” then that no longer becomes an issue when he is converted (qtd. in Perret 261). Indeed it can be said that some Jews considered the price of assimilation to be too great so as not to be an outsider, and, therefore, saw the need to openly convert to Christianity but secretly practice Judaism. In fact, Janet Adelman in her article, “Her Father’s Blood: Race, Conversion, and Nation in The Merchant of Venice” notes that Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice is “extraordinarily attuned to the plight of the outsider who would assimilate and to the price of assimilation” (8-9). Adelman asserts that Jessica’s melancholy is registered in Act three, Scene five, line fifty-eight when Lorenzo inquires of her mood by stating: “How cheer’st thou, Jessica?” (9). It can be implied that the Jew always considered herself as an outsider, as she could fully express her cultural norms unique to her racial heritage. All of these had to be practiced in hiding, thus strengthening feelings of estrangement on the part of the Jew from the rest of the society. Clearly, this would explain the perceived melancholy of Jessica, the daughter of Shylock.
THE ANTI-SEMITIC CONCEPTS AND IDEAS PRESENT WITHIN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Ideas which Support the Fact that Shakespeare did not adopt a Complete Anti-Semitic Approach. Firstly, it should be acknowledged that there are critics who assert that Shakespeare did not actually intend to completely cast the character, Shylock, in a negative light. This point is evidenced by the following statement made by Perret: “Although Shakespeare may have written the play to capitalize on excitement stirred up by Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and the trial of Dr. Lopez, this does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare intended to present his Jew as stereotypically villainous—he may have felt the need to show that Jews are men rather than monsters” (261-262). The above quote implies that Shakespeare did not adopt a complete anti-Semitic approach in his portrayal of the villain, Shylock. This is validated by the following stated by Shylock: “Hath not a Jew eyes? [H]ath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (3.1.46-48). Shakespeare allows the character Shylock in his famous speech recorded in Act three, Scene 1, to move the Elizabethan audience to sympathize with the Jew. This is in total aversion to the thinking of Elizabethans who equated the Jew to the devil. This point is implied by Craig Harris who asserts that the villain, and especially, the Jewish villain, is perceived as by the Elizabethan as being “entirely self conscious and entirely black, a complete embodiment of evil” (qtd. in Gayani 123). However, Shylock's speech in Act three, Scene one, depicts an individual who is not unfeelingly evil, but a person who has “passions” and “affections” like other Elizabethans. It can be argued that Shylock is a victim of his environment, which dictated that he be engaged in either two professions: money-lending or peddling (as indicated previously). This point is validated by the following: “one can venture to add that given the circumstances under which [he is] accused of 'villainy', Shylockshould be seen as [an] ‘intelligible [criminal]’ and a victim of his circumstances rather than [a villain]” (Guyani 124).
Some critics contend that Shylock was not resented for being Jewish but, rather, he was resented because he was a money-lender. This point is validated by the following: “Shylock would have provoked the antipathy of the Elizabethan audience not so much because he was a Jew as because he was a usurer” (Smith 194). This point is further validated by Antonio's quote: “I am as like/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too./If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not/ As to thy friends, for when did friendship take/ A breed of barren metal of his friend?” (1.3.123-127). In other words, Antonio threatens to physically abuse Shylock if he does not lend him the three thousand ducats without incurring interest on the amount. Antonio, who is a Christian, would have understandably been against usury. Shylock previously charges him for spitting on his “Jewish gabardine,” kicking him, and calling him a dog (1.3. 100-122). It can be argued based on the analysis of Smith's argument and the reading of the play that Shylock believes that he is attacked by Antonio because he is a Jew when, in fact, he is a attacked because he is a usurer.
Ideas which Support the Point that there are Implications of Anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice and the Elizabethan Prejudices which Informed them. However, it can be argued that since the Elizabethan society dictated that the Jew should only engage in two professions, one of which is money-lending, then in attacking usurers the play is, albeit inadvertently, still attacking the majority of Jews residing in England during the Elizabethan period. Understandably, not all usurers would be Jews within the context of the Elizabethan period (during usury was legalized) but it would be understood that a majority of the usurers within the Elizabethan period would have been Jews, although they had to practice Judaism in secret and declare openly that they were Christians. William Meyers in his article “Shakespeare, Shylock, and the Jews” indicated that there was a community in London housing “80 to 100 Marranos” during the Queen Elizabeth I's reign (33). The image of the usurer is in line with the greedy and money-loving Jew, which Elizabethans have grown to hate over the years. Meyers made an interesting observation which he notes in his article concerning Dr. Lopez, whom the character, Shylock, is based on: “For reasons of his own, [David Katz, a historian] seems to want the English to believe that, for money, a Jew [that is, Dr. Lopez] was willing to kill their most beloved Queen” (37). David Katz’s attitude, who is the author of Jews in the History of England (1994) reflects the general attitude that the Elizabethan had towards Dr Lopez, which impacted on their attitudes to Jews in general. There is a slight reference to Dr. Lopez in this statement made by Gratiano: “a wolf hanged for human slaughter, / Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet/ Andinfused itself in thee” (4.1.134-137). Meyers explains that this is considered to a reference to Dr. Lopez's execution because “Lopez's name was frequently spelled 'Lopus'” during the sixteenth century, and “easily punned with the Latin for wolf” (32). In the Elizabethan period, dogs and wolves were “hanged for attacks on humans and domestic animals” (32). Nevertheless, Lott contends in his introduction to the New Swan Shakespeare of the Merchant of Venice that this “theory is no longer widely accepted” (xiv). However, there is still merit in the argument which suggests that Gratiano is, in fact, referring to Dr. Lopez, who was hanged several years ago. The dehumanizing of Jews, which include referring to them as dogs and monkeys, is a prominent feature of modern day Semitism. Some might argue that this one of the strongest indicators of anti-Semitism present within Merchant of Venice.
Critics contend that Shylock's “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is meant for comic relief rather than to elicit sympathy from the audience. Meyers posits that in “Shakespeare, context determines much of what a speech means, and when Shylock makes that speech he in fact talking to two of the least significant characters of the play, the instantly forgettable Salarino and Salanio” (37). Meyers added that if the speech was to have any sort of significance then it would have been spoken to the main characters such as Antonio, Portia, or the Duke (37). Both Meyers and Smith contend that if the speech were to have an elevated intention then it would have been written in verse rather prose (Smith 198; Meyers 37). Meyers argues further that there is a negative turn at the end of Shylock’s speech when he mentions that “revenge is a Christian practice” (37). This is in stark contrast with the Christian teachings promoting mercy, as implied by Meyers (37). However, it is still in keeping with the Elizabethan perception of the Jew which is a “vengeful Jew” and, therefore, a “total villain,” as suggested by Gayani (123).
Shakespeare adheres to the Elizabethan notion which dictates that a Jew is diabolical figure within the play, Merchant of Venice. This is illustrated by the following statement made by Solanio in reference to Tubal, Shylock's Jewish friend: “Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be matched unless the devil himself turn Jew” (3.1.63-64). In other words, Solanio is saying a third cannot be found to compare to them unless the devil himself turns into a Jew. It would be correct to arrive at the conclusion that Solanio's remark is openly anti-Semitic, and is in line with the Elizabethan preconception of the Jew as being devilish, as noted by Gayani: “[During the Elizabethan period] [t]he non-Christian Jew was automatically perceived of as a threat to the existing social order and as such was labeled the devil-incarnate and a villain” (124). It should be noted that this was spoken by Solanio after Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. The speech clearly did not have an impact on Solanio so that he could perceive Shylock and other Jews more favorably. If this was the case, he would not have made the remark that he had upon seeing Tubal greeting his friend, Shylock. Hence, this adds more weight to the argument that suggests that Shakespeare did not intend for the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech to evoke sympathy.
There is evidence which imply that Shakespeare within the Merchant of Venice justifies the infliction of violence on Jews. A quote which strongly validates this point is the following quote made by Antonio: “I am like to call thee [dog] again, / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (1.3.123-124). It should be noted that the word “spurned” means kicked. It should be noted that the word "spurned" means kicked. These words are very telling as they are spoken by the Christian, Antonio. The playwright appears to justify Antonio's threat of attacking Shylock, and his past attacks on the Jew within the context that he is a money-lender. It can be argued that it is rather unfair for the playwright to allow the character, Antonio, to justify his abuse of Shylock, simply because he is a money-lender. It seems quite unreasonable to attack Shylock for being a money-lender when the Elizabethan society provided few options to the Jew, by way of vocation or profession. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth legalized usury in 1570, as indicated by Smith (195). It is unreasonable to blame Shylock for choosing one of the few professions available to a Jew, and that is perfectly legal. Therefore, it can be inferred that Shylock is undeserving of the abuse which he is being subjected to by the Christian, Antonio.
In conclusion, although there are various arguments purporting that Shakespeare did not intend to be anti-Semitic in the portrayal of Jews within the text, Merchant of Venice. However, according to the analysis of my research, there is more evidence which suggest that Shakespeare indeed adopted an anti-Semitic approach which was influenced by the prejudices of his time, as suggested by Meyers (37). This is not to say that one cannot find some attempts being made by the playwright for Shylock to receive redemption by near the close of the play. However, this was at the expense of expressing his cultural identity, which is linked to his religion. Against the background of the racial prejudices of the Elizabethan period, there is nothing which justifies or validates the various depictions of anti-Semitism in the play, Merchant of Venice. Forms of bigotry, such as anti-Semitism, seek to dehumanize the individual. This point is clearly expressed by Coretta Scott King: “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.”
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