The Persecution of Jewish Peoples

For the last 2000 years, the strife between Christians and Jews has been a constant within the history of Europe. By the end of the medieval times, most Jews had been forced out of their homes in many western European countries. This diaspora, one of many for Jewish peoples throughout history, and subsequent persecution of the Jews who chose to remain in their countries following their mass exodus clearly sets the tone for The Merchant of Venice. The attitudes and actions directly broadcasted to Jews from Christians in the play summaries the longstanding conflict between the two historical religions.

While Shakespeare himself may not have had any strong feelings for or against Jewish people, he knew how to evoke responses from his audiences. Much like his persecution of Richard III, Shakespeare understood the disdain many Europeans held for Jewish people and knew that by creating an easily dislikable Jewish character, his audiences would be united through a collective hatred. Shakespeare’s character, Shylock, was seemingly designed to portray Jews in an unflattering light. Shylock is a greedy, remorseless, wannabe tyrant who shows little respect for others. Therefore, the animosity he shows toward Antonio and his unrelenting attitude toward Antonio’s punishment for failing to pay his debts is only the beginning of Shylock’s heartlessness. Even his own daughter Jessica claims that “our house is hell, and [my father is], a merry devil” (II. iii. 2). While Shylocks actions may be guided by less than holy morals, the questions still must be asked “do we not bleed…do we not laugh… do we not die” (III. i. 54-5). We as people must work together in order to unite those with differing opinions and practices and instead support actions that bring us together as people as opposed to further drive us apart.

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