Monday, December 01, 2008

Stereotypes: Shakespeare's character called Shylock the Jew

Shylock is a central character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice who famously demanded a pound of flesh from the title character.

There are elements of humanity in the character, says Wikipedia, most notably in his legendary "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, in which he argues his right to dignity and to revenge himself on the Christians who wrong him. This passage is also often thought to be a breakdown of the division between Jews and Christians, as both will seek revenge.

In modern performances of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is often treated as a tragic figure, while Antonio is cast as more of a villain.

Not mentioned in the play (but well known to his first audiences) is that during Shakespeare's day, money lending was one of the few careers open to Jews, since Jews were forbidden to charge interest to their brethren (fellow Jews), and Christians also followed Old Testament laws condemning usury charged to their brethren (fellow Gentiles). There was therefore a brisk business in banking between Jews and Christians.

Of particular note is that Jews were almost universally detested by Christian nations in the 16th Century, and England had expelled all Jews some 300 years prior to Shakespeare's time. Much of what remained of them were tales fraught with anti-Semitic sentiments ranging from exaggeration to outright lies, which depicted them as vile and despicable. Despite Shakespeare's upbringing in such an environment, he still managed to portray Shylock as a human being.

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