History Of The Jews Prior And During Shakespeares Time English Literature Essay

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This paper describes the history of the Jews prior and during Shakespeare's time and reviews the character of Shylock within that context. It attempts to determine if Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock is consistent with history. Interest in the subject arose from the powerful role that films and theaters have in the development and propagation of anti-Semitic ideas. William Shakespeare lived from 1561 to 1616. He wrote the Merchant of Venice in which he created the character of the Jew, Shylock, sometime between 1594 and 1596. Using the birth of Shakespeare and the writing of the Merchant of Venice as milestones, this paper shall review the history of Jews in England until 1600.

Until the establishment of Israel after World War II, the Jews have had no land to call their own. Diaspora characterizes Jewish history. In 70 AD, the Jews revolted against the Romans but failed. The Romans retaliated by destroying Jerusalem, annexing Judea as a province of Rome and systematically driving the Jews out of Palestine (Hooker).

According to Blunt (1830), the first mention of Jews in England was in the Canons of Ecbright, Archbishop of York, which were issued in 750. It stated among others that no Christian shall "judaize or presume to eat with a Jew" (2). During the reign of Edward, the Confessor (circa 1042 to 1066), the Jews were considered properties of the King or within the context of feudalism, they were villeins and bondsman of the crown (4).

Historical records involving the Jews became more extensive after the Conquest (Blunt 4), which referred to the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons by William of Normandy (Hudson). According to Blunt, William the Conqueror favored the settling of the Jews in England. The Jews lived without molestation during the reigns of the first three Norman kings (6). During this period, they began to accumulate properties and wealth (6). When the Crusades began and the nobles and men of rank disposed of their properties to raise funds for the crusades, the Jew likely had the opportunities to expand their holdings (7).

However, this period of tranquility for the Jews was short-lived because as they became wealthier, they also became the focus of the envy among the common people and the Church. Envy spurred malicious and superstitious slander. They also become the target of exorbitant taxes and compulsory contributions. Blunt recounted in details the discrimination and persecution of the Jews under the reigns of Kings Stephen (11), Henry, the Second (16), Richard (22) and Henry, the Third (34). The patterns of discrimination and persecution were consistent. It was during the reign of Henry the Third that Jews were required to distinguish themselves from the Christians by wearing a "badge" in order to protect them (36). As in the previous reign, the prosperity of the Jews sowed discontent and the pattern of discrimination and persecution resurfaced. The Church and members of the clergy were not immune to envy. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Lincoln prohibited Christian interaction with the Jew using excommunication as a compulsion (37). The Jew sought permission from the crown to seek asylum elsewhere, which monarchs did not granted.

The attitudes of the monarchs towards the Jews propagated down the line and found expression in violent mobs. The Jews in the process learned to use their wealth to protect themselves. Although the King Henry the Third oppressed the Jew, he did not condone their persecution and oppression by the common people. They were his properties or in today's language his "milking cows' and therefore need protection. During Henry, the Third's reign edict specifically regulated the behaviors of the Jews to include marriage and intercourse.

King Edward, the First, banished the Jews from England in 1290 (Blunt iv). Edward, who succeeded his father Henry in 1272 and returned from the crusades in 1274 heavily indebted to the Luccans, implemented a program against Christian and Jewish merchant usurers in 1275. His policy was embodied in the Statutum de Judeismo of 1275, which specified among other that Jews were not to engage in usury and that they should live from the profits of their trade. In addition, the monarch expected them to give him three pennies per head annually (Mundill 119). In 1290, Edward issued the Edict of Expulsion and confiscated their assets (Mundill 256). Charles Dickens (1876), retelling English history for children, described the treatment of the Jews during the reign of Edward, the First also nicknamed "Longshank" for his long legs.

To dismiss this sad subject of the Jews for the present, I am sorry to add that in this reign they were most unmercifully pillaged. They were hanged in great numbers, on accusations of having clipped the king's coin, - which all kinds of people had done. They were heavily taxed; they were disgracefully badged; they were, on one day, thirteen years after the coronation, taken up with their wives and children, and thrown into beastly prisons, until they purchased their release by paying to the king twelve thousand pounds. Finally, every kind of property belonging to them was seized by the king, except so little as would defray the charge of their taking themselves away into foreign countries. Many years elapsed before the hope of gain induced any of their races to return to England, where they had been treated so heartlessly and had suffered so much.

Dickens's reference to "badge" referred to the Edward's edict that Jews should "wear the tablets of the Law in length and width as a sign on the outside of their outer garments" (as quoted in (Mundill 119). Blunt described it as "two tables of yellow taffety" (56). This notion of the badge is very similar to the Nazi requirement that Jew wear the Star of David to set them apart from the others.

The clergy and the gentry lobbied for the expulsion of the Jews from England and in 1290; King Edward banished the Jews from his dominion in the continent (Blunt 61). Some 16,000 Jews left England before the All Saints Feast of 1290. They did not attempt to reestablish themselves in England during the 350 years that followed. Blunt reported a failed attempt at readmission after in 1649 the death of King Charles the first (68). The negotiation failed when parliament increased the offered payment of the Jews from 500,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds (68). Blunt suggested another attempt during the time of Cromwell as Protector in 1654. It likewise failed as malicious and speculative rumors surrounded Cromwell and an initial mission of Jews.

Jews however began to trickle into England after the Restoration and by 1662; they had a synagogue in London. By 1670, there were sufficient Jews in England to warrant legislative action to prevent the growth of popery, and formalize their status as aliens. The Jews were relieved from paying alien duties under the reign of King James the Second (1633-1710) (Blunt 72).

Although there are contentions about the dates and the authority of the edicts, the "pre-Shakespeare" history of the Jews in England shows that Jews had a documented reputation for engaging in usury, regardless of whether the reputation is valid or not. They experienced increasing persecution and had, as a collective, no basis to trust government and others in their communities. They were set apart from others through regulations and norms. The timelines indicate that Shakespeare may not have had any direct interactions with the Jews and that he could have derived his materials from hear says and collective historical memories.

Shylock in the Merchant of Venice

A search of "Shylock" in an online version of the Merchant of Venice yielded fifteen returns, five of which directly involved Shylock. This indicates that although Shylock was the antagonists much of the essence of his character comes from the voices of the other character. In Act 1, Scene 3, Bassanio applies a loan for 3,000 ducats payable in three months from Shylock and says that Antonio, the merchant of Venice, will guarantee it. Shylock favorably considers the loan but requests to speak with Antonio. Bassanio invites Shylock to dine with him and Antonio but Shylock vehemently refuses because he supposedly could not stand the smell of pork. He also emphasizes that he would not eat, drink, and pray with Bassanio. This scene failed to reflect the reality that the church had prohibited Christians from dining with Jews.

Shylock meets with Antonio and decides he hates him. Although Shylock claims he hates Antonio because he is a Christian; it is not the primary reason for his resentment. Bassanio is also a Christian but Shylock does not hate him. Shylock's dislike for Antonio stems from the latter's practice of lending without interests, which lowers the interest rate that Shylock could impose, and from Antonio's constant public censure of Shylock's money lending activities. Shylock is peeved that Antonio, who believes usury is immoral, should guarantee such a loan (MV, I, iii, 35-43). The sharp mind of Shylock immediately sees the inconsistency. If integrity is the consistency of one's beliefs with one's action, then the moralist Antonio lacks integrity.

Shylock attempts to engage Antonio into a cordial conversation by explaining that money lending has biblical basis. However, Antonio abrasively cuts Shylock. In front of Shylock, Antonio warns Bassanio to be wary of scripture citing devils alluding to Shylock (I, iii, 95-100). Thus, Antonio's moralist perspective prompted him to be mean and impolite to Shylock without provocation. Shylock defends himself calling attention to Antonio's arrogance and lack of courtesies (I, iii, 125). Antonio is unaffected and tells Shylock he would rather the latter lends him money as an enemy because friends do not charge interests (I, iii, 130-135). Antonio closes his mind to new ways of looking at problems and situations. Shylock expresses his desire to be friends with Antonio and offers to give the loan, and dispense with the interest. However, the penalty for default would literally be a pound of flesh. Antonio accepts the terms because he is confident he would receive his investments before payment of the loan is due.

At this point, the peculiar terms of the contract does not reflect Shylock's malicious intent. His reference to Father Abraham in a self-talk (MV, I, iii, 165) is a prayer. He complains to Father Abraham that the meanness of the Christians make them suspicious. He does not want Antonio to default payment because a pound of flesh has no value. His only motivation in making the offer is to establish friendship. Here Shakespeare shows the alienation of the Jews and their desire for inclusion. Likewise, Shakespeare presents the irony of the moralistic and righteous Antonio thinking of Shylock as a "devil" for being a moneylender, and as a "friend" for proposing a pound of flesh as penalty. After the parties agreed to the terms of loan, Shylock agrees to dine with Bassanio and Antonio.

It is interesting that Shylock's observation is an application of the psychological concept of "projection." Freud described projection as a defense mechanism whereby an individual attributes to others their own unpleasant and unacceptable emotions to others. It also occurs when one attributes to others their own rejected propensities (Bartlett 77). Psychology was not a science in Shakespeare's days but Shylock's perceptive observation indicates a deep understanding of the human psyche. Applying projection to Antonio, one may posture that his vehement rejection of charging interest may be reflective of his unrecognized negative feelings about being the constant source of loans to his friends or of his own desire to charge them interests. Within the context of psychological projection, Shylock is saying that the evil that non-Jews see among the Jews is a reflection of their own inner evils.

In Act 2, Scene 2, Shakespeare uses Launcelot's monologue to show that the stigma of being a Jew rubs off on their associate and thus aggravates their alienation in society. The monologue also contains a hidden criticism of public opinion. Launcelot finds himself conflicted between following the voice of his conscience, which tells him to stay with his master, Shylock, and the voice of the fiend (or devil), which tells him to abandon his master. If conscience is the voice of God, and the conscious thoughts is the voice of the world; then Shakespeare was also giving his opinion about the Jew issue when he made Launcelot decide to abandon Shylock.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Shakespeare presents Shylock's daughter, Jessica's own conflict. She is ashamed of her father's usury. She looks forward to converting in order to marry Lorenzo and arranges to elope with Lorenzo. Conversion and marriage for the young female Jew are modes of escape. In England however, regulations prohibit marriage and sexual intercourse between Christians and Jew. Marriage if any preconditions conversion. However, conversion does not precondition an internal acceptance of faith.

In Act 2, Scene 5, Shakespeare hints on the constant dangers that Jew face when Shylock gives Jessica safety instructions such locking up, and of closing the windows. Launcelot's claim that Shylock starves him contradicts with Shylock's assessment that Launcelot eats and sleeps at lot. Shylock's reference to Launcelot is kinder than Launcelot's description of Shylock. One wonders if Shakespeare is telling his readers that there are three sides of the coin.

The reader encounters Shylock again in Act 3, Scene 1 when he receives new that Antonio's ships sunk. When Solarino asked if Shylock intends to collect his "pound of flesh," the reader discovers an embittered man intent on revenge for the pain the world has caused him. Shylock delivers the famous "Hath not a Jew ..." lines. Shakespeare takes the humanistic perspective on the Jew issue and speaks in their defense through Shylock. The "Hath not a Jew..." monologue reflects the generations of persecution and discrimination the Jews have undergone. Hate breed hate just as love breeds love.

In the same scene, the reader learns that Jessica helped herself to her father's jewelry and cash before eloping. Shylock is paying people to find her. It is however unclear if Shylocks wants to find Jessica because of the jewelry and money she took or because he is concerned about her. Shylock was greatly disheartened to learn that Jessica had pawned a ring his wife, Leah, had given to him. Shylock says he would "not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys" (MV, III, i, 103). Although mercenary, Shylocks has his own values and draws boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. Angered, among others, by Jessica's betrayal, Shylock saw Antonio's financial lost as an opportunity for revenge, not particularly for Antonio's actions but for the meanness of the world to him for being a Jew. Antonio became the escape goat. Shylock confirms that he would take a piece of Antonio's blood and benefit from Antonio's absence in Venice. From Jessica in Act 3 Scene 2, the readers learn that Shylock would rather have Antonio's flesh than twenty times the amount of the loan.

In Act 3, Scene 3, the readers discovers that Shylock had deeply hurt when Antonio judged him without cause. Shylock says, "Thou calledst me dog before thou hadst a cause. But since I am a dog, beware my fangs" (III, iii, 7), which is the reason Antonio became the "escape goat." Shylock demands his pound of Antonio's flesh and rejects Bassanio's offer to pay twice the amount of the loan. Portia, disguised as legal expert, intervenes and saves Antonio by showing the court that although Shylock could legally get his pound of flesh; he is not entitled to blood or anything beyond the pound. In Article 4, Scene 1, Portia also shows that Shylock is guilty of plotting to kill a citizen of Venice and under the law owes the intended victim compensation. Shylock's sentence is to lose half of his estate to the state while the other half goes to Antonio. Shylock is resigned and answers, "Nay, take my life and all. Pardon not that. You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house. You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live" (IV, i, 366-369). With those brief lines, Shakespeare summarized the Jewish issue in England. By prohibiting the Jews from money lending, the state also took away their livelihood. In history, taxation and confiscation of properties aggravated the Jewish condition.

Antonio pleads in behalf of Shylock and requests the court to set aside the fine for one-half of Shylock's property on the condition that Shylock converts to a Christian, and wills his properties to his son-in-law, Lorenzo, and daughter upon his death. Antonio would also give his half to Lorenzo (MV, IV, i, 375). In supporting Lorenzo's union with Jessica, Shakespeare through Antonio is also supporting the notion of racial integration. Readers may view Antonio's plea in favor of Shylock as both an example of Christian compassion and of his awareness that his rigid moralizing based could also be cruel. Antonio is rich, and has many friends. He therefore is a model. Yet, he alone became the focus of Shylock's hatred.

Weinstein explains that within the Jewish context, the word "usury" does not imply automatically translate to exorbitant interests. Weinstein claims that Shakespeare unwittingly makes Shylock commit four violations of biblical and Talmudic laws. It reflects Shakespeare's unfamiliarity with Jewish traditions. These violations are the instructions about money lending, on the taking of life, on justice and goodness, and on mercy. First, Scriptures, such as Ezekiel 22:24, Deuteronomy 15:2 and 24:10 provide guidelines for lending money and make a distinction between lending money to fellow Jews and foreigners. Second, the Six Commandment prohibits the taking of life. Third, Micah instructs the Jews to "do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 4:8). Fourth, the Talmud dictates "He who is merciful to others, mercy is shown to him by Heaven, while he who is not merciful to others, mercy is not shown to him by Heaven" (Shabbath 151b, Makkoth 24a). Thus, there is a need for readers to differentiate between Shylock the Jew and Shylock the individual. However, how could an audience ignorant of Jewish traditions differentiate?


The Merchant of Venice is a comedy but contemporary readers would not likely agree. Although the play seems to carry anti-Semitic themes, a closer review shows that Shakespeare had integrated some very critical opinions within it. Some opinions are well hidden. Through Shylock, Shakespeare likewise gave a voice to the Jews and raised issues affecting them. Although Shakespeare did not accurately portray the treatment of the Jews in England, and gave them more freedom than they actually had, he was able to capture their discrimination and alienation in society. Shylock is complex character, an individual pushed by personal and social conditions to hate.