Shakespeare in quarantine, the Merchant of Venice and anti-Semitism

Shakespeare spent a good portion of his life in quarantine. England was being ravaged by the plague – Shakespeare lost older siblings to the disease, though he himself remained healthy. The theatres of London were ordered closed by the authorities, along with other businesses, to contain the spread of the plague. Did Shakespeare write King Lear while in quarantine, with the pestilence and death afflicting his nation? Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that he did.

That is an interesting question, but there is one question regarding the Bard’s work that has had Shakespeare scholars, academics and playwrights debating for at least 400 years – is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? The plague was not the only contagion afflicting Elizabethan England – anti-Semitism had been rife among English society, and throughout Christian Europe, for centuries.

Let’s unpack this subject.

The England in which Shakespeare was born and raised was an anti-Semitic place. Jews were certainly not welcome in that country. King Edward I had expelled the Jewish population from the nation in 1290 – after centuries of anti-Semitic persecution. Jews who remained in England either converted to Christianity, or practiced their faith in secret. Jews who had endured life in Christian European countries, were often confined to small, cramped ghettos. The city-state of Venice, where the action of The Merchant of Venice is set, followed this practice.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, England witnessed the Lopez affair. Dr Rodrigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jewish convert to Christianity and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, was arrested on a charge of attempting to poison the Queen. Charged and convicted as a traitor in 1594, this trial contributed to an ongoing climate of anti-Semitism. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe, wrote a play called The Jew of Malta. The main villain, Barabas, is a scheming, deceitful, money-lending Jew. This play undoubtedly influenced the literary community, including Shakespeare.

Jews formed a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills. They were blamed for spreading the Black Death, practicing the sin of usury, and consuming the blood of Christian children, among other things. However, it is the subject of money-lending, and its inclusion as the main feature of Shylock, that has formed one of the most enduring and culturally significant stereotypes down the ages.

As with all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in the characterisation of Jews and their role as financiers. Excluded from all professions, corralled into ghettos and subjected to periodic pogroms and violence, Jews resorted to the one occupation that could sustain them – money-lending. Lost in the diaspora, Jewish communities kept a cohesive identity by emphasising religious literacy and education. With compulsory education in Hebrew texts, promoting internal cohesiveness and literacy, the Jews became well represented in business and finance. Shylock is a somewhat sinister caricature of the Jewish money-lender stereotype.

Without summarising the entire play, we can understand the character of Shylock as the principal antagonist of the drama. Antonio, the merchant to whom the title of the play refers, requires a loan. He and his good friend, Bassanio, have made clear their contempt of Shylock because the latter is Jewish. Shakespeare’s genius is demonstrated by his ability to humanise an otherwise contemptible, malevolent villain. Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, should the latter default on his loan.

This demand for a pound of flesh makes Shylock a uniquely vindictive character – among a cast of Christian characters all of whom behave disgracefully. Shylock is not only a victimiser, but also a victim. Shakespeare has Shylock express human emotions of outrage and anger at his mistreatment by the Christian protagonists. Not only does Shakespeare insert the now-famous monologue by Shylock – “I am a Jew” to humanise the character. He also has Shylock expressing caustic sarcasm, denouncing Antonio for his hypocrisy is having mocked him for his Jewishness, yet now asking for his financial help.

By humanising Shylock, Shakespeare is rebalancing the moral calculus of the play. Shylock may be a selfish, malevolent Jew, but he is behaving badly among a cast of reprehensible characters. Shakespeare left open the possibility of playing Shylock as a sympathetic, almost pitiable, character. In the end however, it is Shylock who loses everything – his own daughter turns against him, his wealth is confiscated, and there is only one way in which Shylock can escape with his life – conversion to Christianity. The villainous Jew is isolated and condemned. He can survive, but only by abandoning his Jewish identity.

There is a definite undercurrent of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. Portraying the Jew as villain, Shakespeare bequeathed to the world a cultural icon that has been cited by anti-Semites and white supremacists the world over to retroactively rationalise their own prejudices. It is no secret that the play was produced numerous times in Nazi Germany. However, we should also stop looking at Shakespeare exclusively through our post-Holocaust, post-20th century, lens.

The push to absolve the Bard of anti-Semitism derives from a desire to dissociate Shakespeare’s reputation from anything as repugnant as an ancient prejudice. Works of art and literature are inevitably products of their time, and will contain unsavoury and objectionable elements. Rather than banning the play, we must approach it as adults and be ready to confront its prejudicial stereotypes.

Let’s be mindful of the political and cultural circumstances in which we operate. The resurgence of ultranationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe and the United States has been conducive to a rise in anti-Semitism. The stereotype of the shifty, greedy manipulative Jew, has made a comeback. The last thing we need now is a recycling of an old, outdated caricature.

With regards to The Merchant of Venice – don’t censor it, but let’s put it back in the archives.

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