David Lawrence-Young

David Lawrence-Young – Shakespeare and the Jews

David Lawrence-Young – Shakespeare and the Jews

One of the questions often asked about Shakespeare, and especially in connection with his play, The Merchant of Venice is, was WS anti-Semitic or not? According to Michael Macrone in Naughty Shakespeare, apart from the Bard’s references to Shylock, he makes six other references to Jews in his plays.

“If I am a villain; if I do not love here, I am a Jew.” 

(Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” II.iii)

“…go to the alehouse; if not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian.   

(Launce the Clown in “2 Gentlemen of Verona,” II.v)

“[Even] a (hard-hearted) Jew would have wept to see our parting.” (Crab in “2GoV,” II.ii)


“What a Herod of Jewry is this!” (Merry Wives of Windsor II.i) {Falstaff: Jews as Christs killers)


“Liver of Blaspheming Jew” (Macbeth IV.i) {Witches in “Double, double toil and trouble…}


“You rogue, they were bound, every one of them, or I am a Jew, an Ebrew Jew.” (Falstaff in Henry IV pt.1).

Anti-Semitic picture: “Fly from the Jews Lest They Circumcise Thee” by Thomas Coryate, 1611.

I think it is quite clear here that in none of the above, do the Jews appear in a positive light. This attitude is reinforced when one reads and sees Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”  Here, Shylock is depicted as a money-grabbing Jew and as an exploiter of honest Christians, especially Antonio, the wealthy merchant of Venice. This negative portrait of Shylock is painted so graphically that even today, ‘Shylock’ is synony-mous with evil grasping businessmen, if they are Jewish or not.


In contrast to the above quotations, those who say that WS is not anti-Semitic usually invoke two speeches made by the same Shylock calling on the audience to have pity on the poor man who is a social inferior in Medieval Venice. In Act I,sc.iii Shylock addresses Antonio thus:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usuances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all of our tribe.
You call me a misbeliever, a cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.

And further on in Act III, sc.i

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? 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 revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

 

Medieval picture of evil Jew poisoning a well. Note the Jew’s ragged clothes, the Devil urinating and the figure on the Cross.

In this passionate speech, Shylock uses the word ‘same’ to emphasise the point that he, the despised Jew, is the same sort of person as the Christian in terms of their mental and physical faculties. It is a very sensitive speech and it should be borne in mind that this was written in about 1594 when Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician, and the most famous Jew in England at the time, had been publicly hanged in London in front of a jeering mob on a trumped-up charge of treason. And it is these speeches that those who claim that despite what we think about Shylock, Shakespeare was definitely not an anti-Semite.

Contemporary anti-Semitic picture of Lopez plotting to poison Queen Elizabth I.

It may be correct to speculate that Shakespeare himself didn’t know any Jews personally, or if he did, he knew very few. Officially, between 1290, when Edward I threw the Jews out of England until 1656 when Cromwell allowed them to return, there were no Jews living in England. However, it is known that there were at least two small Jewish communities living in London and Bristol. These few hundred Jews made sure they kept a low profile as Jews were considered as Christ-killers and grasping userers. 

Therefore when Shakespeare described Jews in unflattering terms, he was only using the sentiments that were prevalent during his time. If he wanted people to come and see his plays, then there was no way, if he did have to mention Jews, that they would be seen in a positive light. Christopher Marlowe did the same in The Rich Jew of Malta. Although this despicable character, Barnabas, does sometimes beat the Christians, in the end he pays for this. He suffers a very grim end by being boiled to death in a cauldron that he had prepared for his enemies.

Al Pacino (Shylock) and Jeremy Irons (Antonio) in the 2004 film version of “The Merchant of Venice.” 

Some modern critics see “The Merchant of Venice” not as an anti-Semitic play, but a work in which Shakespeare makes a plea for religious tolerance. They claim that the play’s famous trial at the end is a mockery of justice and that Portia was not a real judge. In fact, it is Shylock who is honest and straightforward here, not the scheming Portia. 

To sum up, my own personal opinion is that Shakespeare was not particularly or deliberately anti-Semitic. He was writing during the late Elizabethan period when to write or speak out against the prevalent way of thinking was extremely dangerous and could land you either in the Tower or at the scaffold – or both! The recent trial and hanging of Dr. Lopez was proof that public tolerance for Jews as in books and plays was not acceptable by the authorities and public opinion. The fact that Shakespeare could write two speeches as those above which could be interpreted in at least two different ways show that he was much more of a sensitive writer than an anti-Semitic bigot.


What do you think?

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