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The Jewish Ghetto of Medieval Venice

Info: 1938 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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Throughout the course of history, segregation and class played a panicle role in separating people into a social hierarchy, back then the system seemed as though it was helping to establish a way of life and luxury but in most cases, many lived a life of pain and suffering.  The Jewish people faced with many prejudice and segregation and it carried on into Medieval Europe. During this time Venice, Italy was a major hub for trade and progression. It was a major shipping port used to import and export goods as well as being a significant staple in the Italian Financing families/market. Segregation is the by-product of hate and the fear of the unknown, at this point in time, the Jewish people across Europe were perceived as lesser people and a big threat to Christians and their believes. The Jewish people were not accepted because of their culture and religion. The working Jews and skilled professions were not accepted and exiled from many countries forced to roam Europe as an immigrant going from one area to the other.

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Since Venice was a fast pace and growing city it had a need for commercial, social and economic expertise that many Jewish people possessed, in turn, lead to a semi-acceptance of Jews into the city and encouraged them to settle for a short period of time.  After this acceptance, a number of poor and wealth professional Jews came to Venice, but the prevailing Christian population living in Venice was uncomfortable and still had the veil of prejudice above the Jews. Through the Christian eyes, Jews were seen as Shrewd and greedy businessmen. In the early 1500s, the Venice rulers created a secluded area where the Jews can live, this area was referred to as the “Venetian Ghetto”. The Ghetto was set in a location out of the major city and surrounded by canals. Having all the Jews stay within a confined area means that the Christian populations are put at ease and that the Jewish people do not mix into central Venice outside of work.

The gates into the Venetian Ghetto was closed nightly and were guarded by Christian guards which the Jews had to pay for. The gates of the Ghetto were designed to protect the Jews living within the ghetto and the people living outside the ghetto. At that point in time, Venice was a very dark and unsafe environment for the Jewish people on top of the struggle. To differentiate themselves from the Christian population, Jews had to wear distinctive hats and or colored marking to signify they were Jewish. Being a Jew limited them to where they can go and what they could do within the city of Venice. Within the whole city of Venice, the only safe haven within it was the Jewish residences. The Jewish people of Venice were not given and denied certain rights, they can only work in specific jobs so many turns to a life of being a merchant or a peddler. Another basic right was water.  Jews were forbidden to use the wells outside of the Ghetto to have water in fear of the Jews poisoning the well. A restriction was placed and scheduled, the “opening and closing” of the Ghetto gates.  The Ghetto would open at 12:00 pm and close at 6:00 pm leaving the Jewish people to conduct their work and the daily task at noon, whereas the rest of Venice could operate at whatever time they pleased.  Jewish merchants were also burdened with taxation. Jewish merchants were required to pay a special tax rate of five percent of all import and export on their transactions, this taxation was in benefit to Venice and Venetians. Economically, this restriction meant that the Jewish people had a significantly more difficult time in obtaining the necessary resources and funds to conduct basics task to live. In addition to the given time restraints, there were also restrictions on how many days the Jewish people could work in Venice.  Jewish merchants were only allowed to conduct business in the city during two-week intervals, this meant that they were only allowed to do business for two weeks and they forced into taking two weeks off thus putting Jews in a financial disadvantage. In addition to all the restrictions listed above, the Jewish people were not allowed to own land forcing the Jews in the renting situations and gearing them into owning more liquid assets as opposed to concrete solid assets.

With all of the restrictions against the Jewish people in the ghetto the ability to sustain a happy life was growing more and more difficult by the day, living in a place where people see Jews as a second-rate citizen and is only there to fore fill a certain need for the city.  The only reason why the Jewish people were there was that the city needed economic and commercial growth and a mediator between people/citizens, and traders. Even in a suppressive environment, there were wealthy Jews. Wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs did well by loaning money at a high interest rate to anyone who needed it. They had no bias towards who they lent their money to rich or poor. In this frame in time, the poor needed this financial backing the most. In the realm of lending and loaning, the Christians viewed lending money and charging interest as usury and dishonorable while the Jewish took a difference stance morally and religiously, they had no problem providing financial aid and charging interest. Venetian rulers had conflicting views and feelings towards the Jews because their money lending help increased consumer spending and help support the economy but it goes against what they believed in. as a whole, the whole Jewish community was put on a scale where on one side the Venetians either persecuted or nurtured the Jews depending on the individual’s commercial and social needs at the time.

In the “Merchant of Venice” Written by William Shakespeare, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who was forced to live in the Jewish ghetto. Shylock was depicted as a Vindictive, greedy, and cruel villain who cares more about money than anything else. Like all the Jews in the Ghetto, Shylock has strongly believed in the Jewish faith and a strong dislike towards the Christians because of their beliefs. Shylock hated Antonio, a wealthy Christian moneylender who does not charge interests on loans and who publicly persecutes Shylock for the way he conducts business. The way Shakespeare’s portrayed  Shylock describes what life may have been like in medieval Venice. The Jewish people within Venice were Shunned by the Venetians because of their culture, religion and the way they conducted their business. The Jewish were discriminated by the Christians and held tension throughout their time co-existing with one another. To many Shylock was seen as the evil unethical money lender and Antonio was the kind, good-hearted Christian moneylender. Throughout the play, Shakespeare used historical facts to build the persona of his characters. Shakespeare used prejudice, restriction and business practices of the Jews during that time to build and guide Shylock’s evil character.  Shylock was an angry man, hated by the Venetians for being a Jew and what it all stood for, the background of his religion, culture and unethical business practice. In the play, Shylock was shown to even betray his Daughter Jessica, who elopes with Lorenzo a Christian where she steals from him. The fact of being a Jew carried so many negative repercussions, it was so oppressed that many Jews converted from being in the Jewish faith and into Christianity through marriage and Shakespeare used this in the display of his play.

Throughout the play, Shylock as a character was driven by his ambition of money and his hatred for Christians. Shylock negotiated exorbitant terms of a loan with Antonio who had generously guaranteed his Friend’s Bassano’s loan with Shylock. Shakespeare’s character of Shylock reinforces and bolsters the stereotype of Jewish businessmen at the time that Jewish moneylenders were perceived as Merciless, greedy, exploitive and revengeful.  This ideology reinforces the idea of the generous and kind-hearted Christian versus the calculated conniving nature of the Jews. In the play, Antonio’s money is in a bind and he is forced into needing a loan. When offered three times the amount to repay the loan, Shylock refuses. Shylock wants revenge and payment per the term of the agreement. This belief in the play further supports the ruthless, greedy nature of the Jews. Both of the two parties went in front of a judge and shylock loses the case based on a technicality and is charged with the attempted murder of Antonio. The judge rules Shylock turns over all of his wealth but Antonio agrees for Shylock only losing half of his wealth and being forced into a conversion in Christianity.  This scene depicts the generosity and mercilessness of the Christians towards the perceived evil of the Jews.

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Since Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Jews had their image tarnished in the face of history, Jews have become identified as someone who is unethical, evil spirited and is seen as scum in the medieval Venetian society. Their role as a moneylender played a panicle role in the growth and success of Venice as a major trading capital, even though that society has shunned them.



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