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Anti-Semitism in England

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At the time this play was written anti-Semitism was very common in England. Anti-Semitism is essentially anti Jewish feelings and prejudice towards them. It existed because the Jews were originally seen as ‘Christ killers’ so therefore the hatred between Christians and Jews has existed ever since then. Nowadays it is not as common as it was in the sixteenth century but it is still prevalent in many parts of the world. Of course racism still exists but Anti-Semitism appears to have decreased in society as time has gone by.

The last major case of anti-Semitism was during Hitler’s reign as the leader of Germany where he ordered millions of innocent Jewish people to be sent to concentration camps to be executed. Hitler believed that, as the Jewish nation had their land taken from them, that they married into and poisoned nations. Shortly before this play was written Dr Roderigo Lopez was found guilty of treason. He was Portuguese and Jewish and was working as a physician for Queen Elizabeth the first.

The trial was rigged and Dr Lopez was to be hung, drawn and quartered. On the scaffold before he was hung he swore that he loved the Queen as much as he loved Jesus Christ! By saying this he was saying that he wanted to convert to Christianity, but the spectators saw this as a confession, that he is guilty, but in a matter of fact the spectators see it as him saying I hate the Queen as much as I hate Jesus Christ. The Jewish people were seen as a race apart. They were feared, disliked, persecuted and nomadic. Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Church, once said: “Know, Christian, that next to the devil has no enemy more cruel, more envious and violent than a true Jew.”

The Jewish religion was so envied by European society because as a religion they were wealthy, had good jobs, were well educated and the people of Europe were very jealous of this. The stereotype of the Jew was that he was seen as tight with money, (possibly because the only profession which they were legally allowed to follow was to practice usury) seen as money obsessed, hard dealers.

This play was very popular amongst Hitler’s anti-Semitism and was acted out on many occasions in Germany during Hitler’s reign to justify what was being done to the Jews. To prove that even the great William Shakespeare agrees that Jewish people are treacherous and worthless in society. Hitler used the message from this play to get the message across to the people of Germany that what is happening to the Jewish people should happen because they are worthless characters.

In this play Shakespeare takes the stereotype of the Jew and partially agrees with it but he also challenges the stereotype. He is an entertainer. He wants to give the audience what they want and if society dislikes the Jewish nation then Shakespeare has to give them what they want to watch. Thus Shakespeare gives them a stereotypical villain, a Jew. This is somebody that the audience will recognise and enjoy seeing punished.

Shylock in this play is almost like a pantomime villain, a character that the audience would boo and hiss at every time he enters the stage. We even see evidence of him playing a pantomime villain as he talks in an aside to the audience, explaining why he hates Antonio: because he is a Christian, lends money without interest therefore putting Shylock out of business, he insults and abuses Shylock in public. But while Shakespeare is portraying Shylock as a villain he also portrays him as a victim. Shylock tells us how Antonio abuses him in the street:

“And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Act One Scene Three, line 112)

He portrays Shylock in this way to try and get audience to think about their prejudices and stereotypes and to look beyond them. Just because he is Jewish it does not mean he is inhuman; he is just like me or you:

“If you poison us do we not die”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act Four Scene One)

Shakespeare brilliantly manages to get both the idea of Shylock being victim and villain across in the play.

There IS lots of evidence in this play to suggest that Shylock is a villain and Jew of the popular stereotype. It certainly seems that way in Act one Scene Three. Shylock for once in a position of a power, plays with Bassanio refusing to give an answer one way or the other. He takes twenty-five lines to give his answer: (“I think I may take his bond”). Also in this scene we see Shylock talking in an aside to the audience, like a pantomime villain. He gloats about the chance of revenge (“If I can catch him once upon the hip…”). He tells the audience how and why he hates Antonio; he is too devious to say this to Antonio’s face and is most certainly very untrustworthy in that he appears to want to ingratiate himself with Antonio. In the scene he becomes very money obsessed another very typical stereotype of the Jew.

We see further evidence of Shylock becoming money obsessed in Act Two Scene Five and it tells how Shylock dreamt of money: (“For I did dream of money bags tonight”). This shows that he is thinking of money all of the time, money is always on his mind. In this scene Shylock shows us how malicious he can be. When explaining the deal of taking the pound of flesh he appears to be excited. He knows that by taking a pound of flesh from Antonio’s heart he knows that it will surely kill him. He opts for this choice over receiving more money in interest.

The manner in which Shylock treats his daughter, Jessica, also implies that he is a villain. Jessica regards the home as a house of hell and describes hoe she cannot wait to get away. She is depending on Lorenzo to take her away and to keep to his promise of marrying her:

“If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,

Become a Christian and thy loving wife.”

(Jessica, ‘The Merchant of Venice, Act Two Scene Three)

In this scene Jessica also tells us how she is ashamed of her father and although she is his daughter they have two different ways of life:

“To be ashamed to be my father’s child.

But though I am a daughter of his blood,

I am not to his manners.”

(Jessica, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act Two Scene Three)

Shylock’s reaction when he finds out that Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo is that of a stereo typical Jew: he does not know whether to mourn the loss of his money or his daughter:

“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice, Act Two Scene Eight)

This is a reaction of a man who is incapable of normal human emotions. To make matters worse for Shylock his daughter has eloped with a Christian and as a result of this he wants to take his revenge on the whole Christian world. It is the last and worst insult that the world can give him, though of course an audience at the time would probably not see things like that. They would simply at his confusion. And as Shylock has a Christian at his mercy he is determined to keep to his deal, of taking a pound of flesh from Antonio.

In Act Three Scene One Shylock gives a speech in which we see both victim and villain. In this speech he says how he will use Antonio’s flesh as bait to catch flesh (a villains confession), if not that simply as revenge but Shylock movingly asks how he is different from Antonio: (“If you prick me us do we don bleed.”). Shylock goes onto say that he is like Antonio in other ways to: “If you poison us do we not die”. Shylock says that if I am like you – I will behave like you, I will follow your example:

“The villainy you teach me I will execute”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice, Act three scene one.)

In Act Three Scene Three, Shylock swears that he will keep his promise of taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote a poem ‘September 1 1939’ and in this poem there is a very famous line: “Those who evil is done/Do evil in return”. Shylock has been treated very unfairly and has been discriminated against by the whole of the Christian community for the whole of his life, in particular Antonio. Here he is with the chance of revenge and he is very determined to get that. The lines from the poem matches perfectly with the situation that Shylock finds himself in. In Shylocks’s speech in Act Three Scene One he gives a whole list of reasons for why he wants revenge against Antonio and the Christian nation:

“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies…”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act Three Scene One’).

We see this throughout the play, casual references that refer to all Jews as the devil, the villain: “As the dog Jew did utter in the streets”, “The villain Jew”. Shylock goes through a day to day routine of abuse from the whole of Christian society. He is spat at, kicked, called a ruthless dog and he is not even called by his own name, he is simply addressed as Jew. In this speech Shylock claims his humanity, explains that he is a human and can by hurt the mocking in which he daily receives. Despite his religion he is still a human being and can be hurt:

“I am a Jew. Hath not Jew eyes?”

(Shylock, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Act three scene one)

In reading this we see that Shakespeare is now challenging the stereotype. Shakespeare explains to us that despite his religion or the religion of anybody they are still human. The Jewish nation are not an object of loathing, the Jewish nation are human beings just like the rest of us. Maybe what we see in, Act One Scene Three, is the loan in what he said that it was. Shylock claims that the bargain in which he is making is in fact a peace offering, a hand of friendship: “To buy his favour, I extend his friendship”.

In act four scene one we see the trial in which Shylock is about to be put in front of. The court of justice, but whom is receiving justice. The whole court is prejudice against Shylock, he is a Jew in front of a jury of Christians, and nobody will be on his side. He is not addressed by his name: “…call the Jew into the court”, the Duke calls him an “inhuman wretch”. He is supposed to stay neutral, not to take any sides. The court tries to browbeat Shylock, try to harass him into the right decision: “We all expect a gentile answer Jew”. We see again how Shylock is not addressed properly, called “Jew”. While on trial Antonio makes a speech of great scorn and loathing. He says how the trial is a waste of time, and that you might as well try and stop the tide than prevents Shylock getting what he wants. Antonio wants the trial to be over and done with.

This scene gets the balance across greater than any other does, whether Shylock is victim or villain. Shylock shows to us that he is a villain in the way in which he sharpens his blade in anticipation of the pound of flesh. He also refuses the offer of more money that he is owed; indeed three times the amount loaned to Antonio. Shylock shows great delight at the announcement of the prospect of legalised murder. He cannot wait to get what he regards as his just deserts: “I have them ready”.

Talking about the knives which he is about to put to Antonio’s flesh. But we see that Shylock is also a victim, we see that Gratanio cannot hide his delight at the sight that “the Jew” has now been caught on the hip. Not only is Shylock fooled he is being forced to live the rest of his life as a Christian, a very savage humiliation. From this Shylock leaves the stage a broken man. Everything he is against he now is as what he wanted was not the money back but justice. And he would get his justice against all the Christian religion if the deal would have been kept, and he would have got his pound of flesh.

The evidence in the play portrays Shylock as both victim and villain depending on the way in which you look at the play and, of course, the way in which the director acts it out. I would incline more towards Shylock being victim rather than villain. I incline this way as I believe that if another race or religion persecutes a man of whatever race or religion he is going to want revenge. And when the perfect opportunity arises to take that revenge the person being persecuted will do anything to make sure that it happens. And if that person is forced to be converted to the race or religion which has persecuted him for some many years he will feel resentful.

To do that to somebody just because they are of a different religion is evil. It is a fine example of bullying, he is victimised by everybody. Shylock tells us in a very moving speech, Act Three Scene One, that he is just like everybody else: “if you prick me do I not bleed”. The man lends money to one of his worst enemies, he could have refused and walked away. Yes, there is a great amount of evidence to incline my opinion towards the villain side but I do believe that Shylock is a greater victim than a villain.

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Anti-Semitism in England. (2017, Oct 26). Retrieved from

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