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Shakespeare Essay Examples

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, there are, as is typical of
Shakespeare, several different themes. One that emerges at the beginning and is
present throughout the rest of the play is anti-semitism. Many of the people of
Shakespeare’s time shared the belief that Jewish people were inferior to
Christians, a belief reaching far back to ancient times. To these prejudiced
people, the Jewish character of Shylock appears to posses the typical negative
qualities of Jews. However, today’s audience is better able to see that these
qualities are stereotypical and not at all typical. Further analysis has also
led to controversy about whether the “Merchant of Venice” supports
anti-semitism or attempts to expose it as a misconception. William Shakespeare
portrays the life of a Jew in his work, The Merchant of Venice. When the play is
first read, Shylock, the Jew is the villian, but he is also a man that has been
persecuted all of his life because of his Jewish background. The Englishmen that
lived during Shakespeare’s time viewed Jews as moneylenders, devils, and an
inferior race. Some of their conceptions of the Jews were true, while some were

Regardless of how it is portrayed in The Merchant of Venice, anti-semitism
has its roots in a time long before Shakespeare. Rabbi Roth says that anti-semitism
dates back to ancient civilizations who shared different beliefs. One such
example is Rome. The Romans believed in several gods, so they strongly opposed
Judaism and they resented Jews, believing that they must convert these misguided
people. Later, Christians grew to dislike the Jews because of their opposing
view on Christ. Christianity stemmed from Judaism, and the Christians believed
themselves a perfection of the Jewish religion. They, too, viewed the Jews as
people that needed converting, and took it upon themselves to convert the Jewish
population. These negative views of the Jews led to

many hardships brought upon the Jewish people, including the exile of the
Jews from England three hundred years before Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of
Jews have been persecuted throughout all time and in England it started in
1290 under Edward IV. He deported all the Jews living in England to France. Not
until Cromwell’s Commonwealth in 1656 were Jews allowed to establish communities
in England. However, there was a case just before Shakespeare wrote the Merchant
of Venice, of Queen Elizabeth’s physician. He was a converted Jew and was
condemned to death for conspiracy against the Queen’s life and the trial brought
forth all of the old accusations against the Jewish people. During this time
laws were passed that that placed special restrictions on where Jews lived,
curtailed their social and economic interactions with Christians, and increased
pressure on Jews to convert to Christianity.

The Crusades were a turning point
in the history of anti-Jewish feeling because they set off a wave of riots that
killed many Jews and forced more to flee from Western Europe to Eastern Europe.
Myths and superstitions grew in the Middle Ages about the Jews. Jews were blamed
for disasters that could not be explained, an example of which would be the
Black Plague. Even though the Jews died from the plague also, it did not deter
the accusations made against them for the thousands that died.
When the play was written, the Jews would still remain in exile from England
for another fifty years. This is also a major source of the false beliefs and
misconceptions that comprised the anti-semetic beliefs of that time period. Many
of these anti-semites had never actually seen a Jew. Therefore, they simply
accepted all of the myths about the Jews because they had no basis for
comparison. For instance, one of these beliefs was that all Jews were black, and
that they possessed an awful smell. This was certainly not

true, but it is an example of what the people of the Elizabethan time period
thought of the Jews. They were willing to believe the negatives about the Jews
because they were supposedly the enemies of Christianity, something probably
preached by the Church leaders in their attempt to eliminate Judaism. The
characteristics in The Merchant of Venice are no different. The story takes
place in Italy, but the people there seem to share the same opinion of the Jews.
They are all living in the ghettos, virtually forced to live there because of
the disapproval of the Venetian citizens.

Their lifestyle is looked down upon
because it is against The Law of God. Usury, the practice of lending money for
interest is considered a sin. Many of the Jews practice this simply because they
are forced to. However, this is not realized by the others, and it is evident by
Antonio and Bassanio’s treatment of Shylock prior to the deal. Shylock’s
sentence at the end of the trial is also a fine example of the sentiment toward
Jews at the time.

To the sixteenth century audience that first was seen The Merchant of Venice,
the character of Shylock would have appeared to have been a typical Jew. To the
modern day audience, he is a collection of stereotypes stemming from the anti-sematic
beliefs of the Elizabethan period which were shared by the English population,
and as some critics argue, even Shakespeare. But a closer look reveals that
Shakespeare understood the reasons for the characteristics of Jew such as
Shylock who was misunderstood because of anti-semitism.
In The Merchant of Venice’s beginning, Shakespeare makes it obvious that
Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian. But it also apparent that he
also hates Antonio because he and Bassanio have proclaimed their disapproval of
him publicly, despite the fact that they have no understanding of his reasons
for his particular lifestyle.

His penalty for not fulfilling the contract of exacting on ounce of flesh
from Antonio, would seem to be another negative attribute of a Jewish person,
but it is only driven by his anger at a people who treat him cruelly without
knowing anything about him. Further into the story, he appears malicious and
with no mercy when he refuses to accept offerings of up to ten times the
original amount of the deal, just so that he can carry out the original
punishment agreed upon. It is this greed that eventually does him in, however.
After the aforementioned incidents, it would appear that Shylock is indeed the
Jew portrayed by anti-semitic beliefs.

But he is simply an oppressed individual
driven by a desire to get back at the same people who are mistreating him by
using their own laws against them. Any person from any other religion or ethnic
group could arguably be expected to react similarly, and this is what
Shakespeare was probably portraying. He certainly makes this view clear with
Shylock’s address to the courtroom in which he proclaims the similarities that
he and the rest of them share, despite the fact that he is a Jew. Some modern
audiences view this simply as his deceitful way to gain sympathy from the jury.
In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a moneylender of prominent wealth and
stature. Jews were allowed into Great Britain by Henry I only if they would give
a percentage of their profits from trade and moneylending.

This agreement and
the tariffs placed on the Jews forced the Jews to have such high interest rates
on their deals that they might have a little profit for themselves. They became
famous for their usury. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassino needs money so that
he can court Portia, the woman that he loves. Bassino goes to his dear friend
Antonio and asks for his help and Antonio takes him to Shylock. Shylock is
hesitant at first because Antonio hindered him in business and humiliated him in
public. He hates Antonio for spitting on him and calling
him names such as “dog” and “cutthroat Jew”. Shylock
wants revenge for what Antonio did to him and for all the persecutions that he
as a Jew has gone through. A lot of anger has built up in Shylock towards the
I hate him for he is a Christian;
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation…
Cursed be my tribe it I forgive him (1.3. 40-49)

He articulates how much Shylock hates Christians and also Antonio. Shylock
makes a deal with Antonio. He will lend money to him only if he he pays him
back in
three months and if he is not paid by then, then Antonio owes him a pound of
This pound of flesh is what Shylock calls “merry flesh” or rather
flesh for the fun of it. He tries to make a joke but he seriously means to take
a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shakespeare seems to portray the English view of
the Jews as devils. Old stories that were passed down through generations
portrayed Jews as “blood-thirsty murderers” that poisoned wells and
killed Christian children for their Passover rituals. This is view is only
enhanced by Shylock’s little speech after he finds out of Antonio’s financial
I’m very glad of it. I’ll plague him, I’ll
Torture him, I am glad of it. (3.1. 116-17)
This shows the “murderous” side of Shylock and also a little of the
devilish side.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare portrays the beliefs of anti-semitism
of the Elizabethan time period, although a closer analysis proves what is true
of all of Shakespeare’s works: there is more meaning than the literal word. The
Jewish people were persecuted by the English, but more in general by the
Christians. There is still controversy on whether or not Shakespeare was anti-semetic
or not, and for that matter if The Merchant of Venice was intended to be.

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