English 3354
Paper 2
Spring 1998

Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic? This is a question that many critics have asked in the past 400 years. There are at least two positions that are commonly adopted in response to the question of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice. The first argues that The Merchant of Venice endorses anti-Semitism and that Shakespeare is an anti-Semite because his work reflects the anti-Semitism that was part of Elizabethan culture. The second argues that The Merchant of Venice subverts anti-Semitism and that Shakespeare is a great humanist because his work resists or transcends the anti-Semitism that was part of Elizabethan culture. There are no definitive answers to these issues; there are only intimations and indications that are presented by the evidence. Each reader must decide whether and to what degree The Merchant of Venice endorses or renounces Elizabethan anti-Semitism (Perry "Introduction").

Jews and England

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, there were no Jews in England. Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290. The few that remained were converted to Christianity or otherwise assimilated into the dominant culture. There were virtually no Jews in England until Cromwell allowed them to return in 1656 (Grebanier 29-30).

There remained, however, stories and legends about Jews—most of them bad. The only thing that most of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience knew about Jews was the folklore they had heard. Many generations of English children were exposed to stories of Jews that abducted, mangled, and even cannibalized Christian children (Shapiro 91).

The Elizabethans believed that Jews were responsible for the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism during Shakespeare’s lifetime was based on religious grounds because the Elizabethans inherited the fiction, fabricated by the early Church, that the Jews murdered Christ and were therefore in league with the devil and were actively working to subvert the spread of Christianity (Perry "antisemitism").

A Pound of Flesh

Jews were also alleged to kidnap young boys and circumcise them against their will, then use them for human sacrifice (Shapiro 89). Perhaps the least explicable feature of the ritual murder accusations was the charge that Jews first circumcised their victims before killing them. In some ways it must have made perfectly good sense. After all, it was well known that Jews circumcised young boys, and it was not at all that difficult to imagine this practice as part of a more complex and secretive Jewish ritual ending in human sacrifice. The confusion is understandable, since the ritual significance of what is described in the Bible as cutting the "foreskin" of the "flesh" (Shapiro 113).

In The Merchant of Venice, just what is meant by a "pound of flesh"? What part of Antonio’s body does Shylock have in mind when he desires to extract "an equal pound" of Antonio’s "fair flesh, to be cut off and taken" in that "part" of his body that "pleaseth" the Jew? James Shapiro points out that in the late sixteenth century, the word flesh was consistently used, especially in the Bible, as a euphemism for penis (122). An average penis would probably weigh about one pound—more or less.

The Merchant of Venice is replete with bad jokes about male genitalia.
In the court scene, Antonio speaks of himself as a "tainted wether of the flock," or castrated ram (4.1.113). Salanio makes a joke about a bag with "two rich and precious stones" that Jessica stole from her father (2.8.18-22), suggesting that Jessica symbolically emasculated her father by taking all his money. Later, Graziano teases Nerissa about "the young clerk’s pen" (5.1.235-236).

In the courtroom scene, however, the pound of flesh is said to be "nearest the merchant’s heart" (4.1.225-229). Does this mean that Shapiro is wrong in his opinion that there is a connection between circumcision and the pound of flesh? I don’t think so.

There are several allusions in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments regarding "circumcision of the heart" such as And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with thy soul, that thou mayest live (Deuteronomy 30:6 KJV). Shylock may have thought that Antonio’s heart was indeed in need of circumcision, but in his deranged state decided to make the figurative—literal.

Bad Jews and Bad Christians

Shylock was a scoundrel—of that there is no doubt. Whether he wanted to cut off Antonio’s penis or some other part of his body, he still wanted to kill him. He was not a good example from which to judge all Jews; the sixth commandment clearly states thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13 KJV).

Shylock wanted revenge for real or imagined injustices perpetrated by Antonio. Many people are familiar with the passage in the New Testament regarding revenge: . . .whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also (Mathew 5:39 KJV). There are similar scriptures in the Old Testament as well, such as: thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself . . . (Leviticus 19:18 KJV).

Shylock was not behaving in a manner consistent with his own religion, but neither were the Christians. If they believed the folklore about Jews that cut off penises of Christians, just for kicks, as Shapiro suggests, then they were guilty of unfairly judging their fellow man. And beating him in court was not enough; they wanted to exact revenge of their own. This is not genuine Christian behavior!

Was Shakespeare Anti-Semitic?

I think not! He may be guilty of presenting Shylock as a stereotypical Jew, but he may have never actually seen many Jews—if any. The deeper meaning of The Merchant of Venice is that a lot of other people in the play also behave badly. Prejudice is clashing against prejudice; neither side was really totally right or wrong. Shylock obviously hated Christians, but the Christians did not exactly love Shylock. Antonio hated Shylock because he charged interest on loans, and Shylock hated Antonio because he didn’t. These two guys just didn’t like each other; religion was just an excuse.

I believe that Shakespeare was making a statement against prejudice of human beings because of their differences. This is apparent in other aspects of the play. When Portia was speaking with the Prince of Morocco, she was nice to him to his face, then made a derogatory remark about his "complexion" when he left the room (Fielder 68). Portia was also quite unkind to Shylock after she had already beaten him. Portia was Shylock’s opposite in almost every way, yet in court, she was just as treacherous as Shylock (Morevski 48).

But Portia herself was the victim of prejudice. She proved that she could function in a court of law as good or better than any man—but she had to dress up like a man to do it! Then she further showed that she could be as cruel as any man could be when she pulled the prank on her husband about the ring.


I believe that Shakespeare was trying to illuminate the darker side of humanity in The Merchant of Venice. He showed us some of the prejudice against Shylock, simply because he was a Jew. He also demonstrated that Shylock hated the Christians just because of their religion as well. Portia was kind to the Moroccan prince to his face, then displayed disgust regarding his skin color behind his back. Portia also made an effort to prove her sexual equality by her brilliant maneuvers in court, then again proved to be nothing more than a bigot herself in dealing with Shylock. Most of the characters in this play were not very nice. They exhibited prejudice toward their fellow human beings on the basis of religion, race, and gender. I believe that Shakespeare was showing us how ludicrous these people really were. His moral message was probably not really not understood by his Elizabethan audience—and perhaps still is not today.


Works Cited

Fielder, Leslie. "These Be the Christian Husbands." Modern Critical Interpretations:

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York:
Chelsea House, 1986.

Grebanier, Bernard. The Truth About Shylock. New York: Random House,1962.

Morevski, Abraham. Shylock and Shakespeare. St. Louis, Mo: Fireside

Perry, Steve. "The Merchant of Venice." The English Zone. 1998.

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7221/antisemitism.htm (7 Mar 1998).

Perry, Steve. "The Merchant of Venice." The English Zone. 1998.

http:// www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7221/introduction.htm (7 Mar 1998).