The Taming of the Jew
The European Renaissance inspired many marvelous creations. In art, a renewal of the Classical style saw mastery of painting and sculpting the human form. In music, the Roman Catholic Contrareformatio inspired the genius interweaving of voices and the perfection of polyphonic sacred music. In architecture, towering Neoclassical edifices cast shadows upon the small, confined medieval architecture which seemed already centuries its elder. All of these areas culminated in early humanist thinking, and a flourish the arts and philosophy. The Renaissance did not, however, deal away with the intense division and hierarchy created in the feudal system of earlier times. Throughout northern Europe, many classes of people met enormous prejudice at the hands of the ruling few. Perhaps among the most scorned and spat upon of men were the Jews. The Israelites had been dwelling and dealing in northern Europe prior to the Renaissance, and indeed faced extreme persecution, even genocide in those years. For a Jew, whose race was blamed for the killing of the Christ, it would have been extremely difficult to succeed in an overwhelmingly Christian land. Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice chronicles these persecutions in a land which is certainly no exception to antisemitism and a city which is certainly no exception to segregation: Venice, Italy. In Venice, Jews were allotted a maximum of 15 days to live in the city, under certain discriminatory conditions. To distinguish themselves as Jews, they were forced to wear yellow garbs (yellow was a color commonly associated with prostitution and filthiness) and their living spaces were confined to a small island near Venice, named the ghèto district. This district was under constant Christian patrol, and was closed off to the greater Venice area after dark.
The reader at this point has no doubt noticed the resemblance of this Renaissance persecution to a relatively recent happening, this being the genocide of Jews in the Third Reich. In a frighteningly similar manner, Germans of this era segregated and persecuted the Jewish people, again moving them into ghettos, and again forcing them to wear distinguishing marks (a yellow garment was swapped for a yellow star bearing the word “Jew”). It is quite jarring to think that something seen today as so medieval and brutal could have occurred so very recently. But just as the world was empathetic to the plight of the Jews in the early 20th century, so too were people empathetic to the plight of the Jews in the Renaissance, and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice serves as proof of this.
For the modern reader, it can at times be difficult to understand the motives behind some of Shakespeare’s characters and plots, as they are quintessentially Renaissance issues. But Shakespeare is not labeled as “timeless” for naught. For a man of nearly half a millennia ago, Shakespeare knew some very revolutionary thoughts. In a previous play, The Taming of the Shrew, it seems that Shakespeare exhibits some empathy towards the oppression of women in the chivalric system, writing novel characters which resist stereotypes and norms. Similarly, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to communicate sorrow for the state of the Jewish people, or at least seeks to imitate it. In Shylock’s most famous monologue, Shakespeare conveys the sense that Jews are more than usurers and dogs:
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
Just as Katharina served as an exception to the female expectations of submissiveness and fragility in The Taming of the Shrew, Shylock serves as an attempt to humanize the Jew.