Shylock and History
by Jami Rogers
Towering over Shakespeare's romantic comedy The Merchant of Venice is the tragic figure of Shylock. Before we can begin to understand Shylock, though, we must understand the historical and dramatic influences under which Shakespeare wrote.
Although Shakespeare wrote possibly the most famous Jew in English literature, there were virtually no Jews in England during his lifetime. It isn't known whether Shakespeare would have come into contact with anyone who was Jewish. It would also be impossible to surmise how detailed his knowledge of the historical facts about Jews in England was, but fact and myth were certainly handed down through the ages, and it is safe to assume that he would have been aware of his country's historical folklore.
Jews in Early England: Assimilation to Expulsion
One of the first documented groups of Jews residing in England comes from Oxford in 1075. For more than a century, English Jews were not confined to ghettos, unlike many of their European counterparts. Eyewitness accounts report that Jews and non-Jews visited each other's houses, indicating that they lived side by side in relative harmony. Jews, however, were not citizens. They were viewed as outsiders, and were often barred from many professions because of their religion. Only Christians could belong to the artisan guilds -- the professional associations of the era -- and own land, which left Jews with few means of earning a living. Christians, however, could not lend money with interest, and many Jews earned a lucrative living as usurers. This profession was not a sure path to riches, as debts often had a way of going unpaid. The Jewish lender often had to become his own debt collector, and in trying to regain the debt owed to him, he frequently became the target of resentment. As usury was a profession comprised exclusively of Jews, religion eventually became the focus of much of this bad feeling.
In the late 12th century, preparation for the Third Crusade brought a heightened level of anti-Jewish sentiment. Anti-Semitic violence culminated in two massacres, one at the coronation of Richard I in 1189, when 30 Jews were killed, and the other in 1190 in the city of York, when 150 Jews were massacred. The Magna Carta, the basis for English constitutional law, is itself a testament to the growing unpopularity of Jewish money-lending activities. Two clauses in the 1215 document state that if a debtor dies before his debt is paid, neither his heir nor his widow will be responsible for repaying the debt.
Repressive measures against Jews continued to grow as the century wore on until finally, in 1275, they were forbidden to be money-lenders. Several more edicts against Jews were implemented at this time, including the taxation of any Jew over the age of 12 and the wearing of badges that identified people as Jewish. With the loss of their primary source of income, and thus their value to the King's coffers, Jews became expendable to the Crown and were expelled from England in 1290, not to be readmitted until 1655.
After the Expulsion, the English view of Jews began to be formed by several myths that grew in popularity through the centuries. The strongest of these myths was undoubtedly that of ritual murder (or "blood libel"), which remained in circulation in England long after the Jews had been expelled. There were several variations of this ritual murder legend, the most prevalent one being that of Jews kidnapping children at Easter and using them in ritual practices. It was also believed that adult Christians would be killed and their blood used for Passover ceremonies. Not one of these myths had any basis in fact; instead they stemmed from fear of an unknown culture and, yet, they were regarded as truth by many.
Jews in Elizabethan Society
The world in which Shakespeare lived was an exceedingly dangerous one. The threat of a civil war was never far away. When Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, she staved off the threat of rebellion by dealing ruthlessly with any hint of treason. Many of her enemies -- perceived or actual -- were beheaded.
Much of the plotting against Elizabeth I had its origins in the religious intolerance of the era, begun when Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, broke with the Catholic Church. Desperate for a male heir to guarantee the Tudor succession, Henry was eager to divorce his then-wife and marry Anne Boleyn, whom he hoped would give him an heir. The Pope refused to grant him a divorce, and Henry VIII's solution to this conundrum was to break from the Catholic Church and create the Church of England, installing himself as head of a new Protestant religion.
A religious war for the soul of England then developed. By the time Elizabeth was Queen, the threat was not just internal but international, as the Pope and Catholic European countries plotted against the Protestant monarch in the hope of returning a Catholic to the throne of England. Elizabeth was forced into a series of reprisals against recusant Catholics (people who outwardly seemed to be Protestant, but who secretly practiced Catholicism), many of whom were murdered.
Elizabeth, however, was by no means the first Tudor monarch to engage in such actions. Her own father was guilty of similar intolerance, and her Catholic sister, Mary, had imprisoned Elizabeth herself in the Tower of London when it became clear that she was the focus of Protestant insurrections against Mary, then queen. She soon earned the epithet "Bloody Mary" because of her murderous actions against the Protestants. It would be no understatement to say that religion was serious business in Elizabethan England.
Where do the Jews fit in this climate of religious intolerance? Despite their expulsion 300 years earlier, small groups of Jews sought refuge in England from the Spanish Inquisition and were living quietly during Elizabeth's reign. These Jews, known as Marranos or Conversos, people who had converted to Christianity from Judaism, and though they outwardly appeared to be Christians, many retained their Jewish heritage, even if they did not actively participate in Jewish religious practices. Another small group of Jews made its way to London in the 1500s and became musicians at the Court of King Henry VIII. Some scholars have even suggested that the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets was one Emilia Bassano, descended from these same musicians.
Most people of Jewish descent living in England in the 16th century were not persecuted by their Christian neighbors. But there was one notorious event which could hardly have escaped Shakespeare's notice. In 1593, a few years before The Merchant of Venice was written, Queen Elizabeth I's physician Roderigo Lopez was accused of trying to poison her. Lopez, allegedly in league with the King of Spain, was convicted of treason, hung, and drawn and quartered in 1594. His was a very public execution, and the fact that he was a Marrano led to an outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment in the country. He was taunted by slurs on the scaffold as he died, still proclaiming his innocence. It was a clear but unfortunate sign that there was a latent anti-Semitism within the English public. Suspicion was not reserved for Jews alone, though. At this time all foreigners were regarded with suspicion and distrust, at this time, because they were seen as a threat to the security of the English nation. Anti-Spanish sentiment, for instance, was even more prevalent than anti-Semitism at the time of Lopez's death.
Shakespeare and Shylock
William Shakespeare, being a man of the theatre, would have been heavily influenced not only by history, but also by the theatre that had preceded him. He was also an exceptionally good businessman with a keen sense of what his audience wanted. Portrayals of Jews in drama were a long-standing tradition by the time Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice. The Jew seems to have been the guy audiences loved to hate in medieval and Renaissance drama -- the equivalent to Americans' glee at watching the television exploits of the fictional J.R. Ewing two decades ago.
The roots of Shakespearean drama begin with mystery and miracle plays. During the Middle Ages, touring troupes primarily sponsored by the church performed the stories of the Old and New Testaments for a largely illiterate audience. Within these performances lurked the medieval dichotomy of feeling about the Jewish race that had dogged Christianity. On the one hand, Jewish patriarchs such as Moses were admired, while on the other Jews were often seen to be responsible for Christ's crucifixion.
With the coming of the Renaissance this strictly biblical, if somewhat biased, portrayal of Jews gave way to an overly melodramatic perception. Jews became the evil villains of Elizabethan drama. Frequently portrayed as Machiavellian or greedy or both, they were not complex characters. In fact, many of Shakespeare's contemporaries simply told a story, rather than added any psychological layers to characters and their motives. Even Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's greatest rival, fell into the one-dimensional trap in his play The Jew of Malta, written in 1589 -- nearly a decade before The Merchant of Venice. Both Barabas in The Jew of Malta and Shylock are money-lenders and they both have daughters who leave home with their father's money, but there the similarity ends. Barabas is an over-the-top villain who steals, cheats, and indulges in murder until he finally meets a gruesome end -- boiling in oil. Shakespeare's characterization of Shylock broke with theatrical tradition. Shylock is a complex man, whose every action can be understood and who, finally, elicits understanding from his audience.
Elements of all these influences -- historical, societal, and theatrical -- helped to mold Shylock's character. What we can draw from the play regarding Shakespeare's ideas about the Jewish people, however, is pure supposition. Shakespeare left no journals, no lifetime correspondence from which a biographer could draw a full picture of the author and his work. It is even questionable his plays would have survived if it weren't for a band of actors pooling their memories together seven years after his death to publish the First Folio.
Shylock began the play much as an Elizabethan audience would expect: He exhibited every sign of being the piece's villain. As the money-hungry Jewish usurer that had become a stock character in Elizabethan drama, Shylock made himself thoroughly unpleasant, with asides to the audience stating that he hated Antonio because Antonio was a Christian -- "but more" he continued, because he lent money without interest, thus competing with Shylock's business and threatening Shylock's sole means of supporting himself and his family.
In Shylock's final scene, Shakespeare had him act out another stereotype: a ritual murder. Of course, there is no mention in the play that Shylock would use Antonio's blood in any religious ritual. But the audience would have immediately associated the stage action with the myth. Shakespeare seemed to be giving his audience exactly what they expect from a stage Jew. In Portia, the audience got the means to stop the ritual murder because she would not let the Jew shed one drop of Christian blood. The text specifically says "Christian," reinforcing the "blood libel" legends.
While he perpetuated received notions of Jews, Shakespeare also did an extraordinary thing for an Elizabethan playwright: He created a Jewish character who was flawed, and human, and oppressed by the Christians surrounding him. The audience was told time and again of Shylock's encounters with Christians and how they spat upon him, called him nasty epithets, and spurned him. Shylock was the very picture of a man who suffered much at the hands of his fellow men and who had finally reached his breaking point. Growing scholarship points to the possibility that Shakespeare's family were themselves recusant Catholics, oppressed in Stratford and fallen from their high place in local society while Shakespeare was still a boy. If this is true, then perhaps Shylock's oppression was a metaphor for England's religious oppression during Shakespeare's lifetime. His forced conversion also fits with this notion, as it was not only Jews being forced to become Christians, but also Catholics forced to become Protestants and vice versa, depending on who was in control of the throne at the time. They had to convert or lose their lives. This theory is pure speculation, but it would hardly be the first time -- or the last -- that theatre was used to make a covert political statement.
Viewing the play through modern eyes, Shylock can be seen as both an Elizabethan stereotype and a fully drawn human being. Ironically, it is precisely because of the stereotypical elements in Shylock's character that many people argue against The Merchant of Venice, viewing it as an anti-Semitic work -- an understandable reaction in a post-Holocaust era. Shakespeare, however, did not write a one-dimensional villain, but a complex character who defies explanation and who will probably never be fully understood.
Jami Rogers received her training as a Shakespearean actress at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She has performed at the MacOwan Theatre in London, written a play performed by Boston Theatre Works, and has worked for Masterpiece Theatre and MYSTERY! since 1997.
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