Anda di halaman 1dari 2

Historical Context of Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice

Historical context:
The Jews and Judaism have experienced numerous persecutions, starting from
late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, when the Roman Empire frequently subdued the
Jewish people, first by evicting them from their homelands during the pagan Roman era and later
by authorizing them as second-class citizens during the Christian Roman era. Another wave of
persecutions followed in medieval Europe during the Crusades, in the name of Christianity, and
the expulsions of Jewish populations from England, Germany, France, Spain and Portugal.
Procedures such as expulsion and genocide were used throughout history by entire
nations and empires who sought to oppress and eliminate the Jews. Some of the most important
actions against the Jewish populations were: the First Crusade, the Spanish Inquisition,
the Portuguese Inquisition and the Pogroms backed by the Russian Tsars, but the most
destructive was in Nazi Germany- the Holocaust led to the slaughter of around 6 million Jews.
Jews in Venice:
Jewish merchants and moneylenders visited and worked in the city of Venice beginning
with the 10th century but only started settling there during the 13 th century, when they had to pay
certain taxes in order to be allowed to make transactions. Fearing the Jewish appropriation in the
economic domains, the authorities decided the expulsion of Jews from Venice in the 14 th century,
with the only possibility of work limited to two-week intervals. Only those who were not
moneylenders remained in Venice, suffering various restrictions and being forced to wear
markings on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews, such as: a yellow badge, a yellow hat
and later a red hat. (Levy et al. 779)
Portrayal of Jews in literature
Throughout history, the stereotypes of Jews in literature have developed but their
constancy over the centuries is a suggestion of the fact that the way in which Jews were treated
was stagnant and little affected by the modifications in the Jewish society. While trying to
represent a character of Jewish origins, authors mirror the perspective of their contemporaneous
society, which evolves through the modifications of economy and culture. But the existence of

anti-Semitism is an undeniable truth, proved by the reiteration of the evil stereotype of the Jews
in literature. Thus some of the first depictions of this stereotype were the early mistery plays. The
medieval fantasies which portrayed Jews as evil villains who attacked Christians represented the
inspiration for plays such as The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe and The Merchant of
Venice by William Shakespeare. But in Shakespeares time there were no Jews in England,
having been banished for almost 300 years. Therefore Shakespeares public couldnt have
possibly known from a real experience what Jewish people were like, having to rely only on
stories and biased rumours.
Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta was one of the plays which influenced
Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice. The main Jewish character is called Barabas and is
depicted in a similar way to Shylock, as a villain, a manipulative and malevolent exploiter who
ends up punished for his crimes after he loses his daughter. But the emphasis is on Barabas
wickedness and lack of morality, which turn the Jew into a character described by inhumanity.
Shakespeares play, despite the fact that it talks about anti-Semitism, is not as severe and strict
regarding the depiction of a Jew character as a distorted caricature. Shylocks character
comprises both the fervent perseverance for his quest for vengeance and the unquestionable
accusation of Christianitys cruel treatment towards the jewish population. In present times,
reading Shakespeares play rises the problem of a factual conflict and our moral values and codes
clash with the standards of Shakespeares time.

Richard S. Levy, Editor Dean Phillip Bell, et al. A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and
Persecution. ABC-CLIO, 2005. E-book.