Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head every once in a while. I have to be frank and say that I’ve noticed it quite a bit recently with all the talk about the way Israel treats the Palestinians. I have often been in conversations where someone says “Anti-Semitism has always been around, look at Shakespeare and the way he wrote his Shylock.” There are scholars who also espouse this belief. In his book Shakespeare’s Jew, H. B. Charlton asserts that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic because of his portrayal of Shylock as a Jewish moneylender. He wrote that Shakespeare “planned a Merchant of Venice to let the Jew dog have it.” I have friends who share Charlton’s view because they have heard the opinions of others who stated that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. I am a Jew and I hate anti-Semitism, too. However, I am concerned that as Jews, the term “anti-Semitism” has developed such emotional reactions in us, we accept and repeat accusations of anti-Semitism without examining all the facts. In our fervor to point out prejudice so that it can be eliminated, we sometimes forget to look at the context in which the statements are made. The communication process between Jews and gentiles can be greatly hindered if we, as Jews, do not try to understand the context in which a gentile’s opinion is formed or if we blindly accept another’s opinion without investigating the situation for ourselves. If one studies the environment in which Shakespeare was raised and really look at the words Shylock uses, I believe one would find that Shakespeare was actually giving a message to the society he lived in, saying, “We have treated Jews as subhuman and taken away their methods of making a living, all while it is we Christians who do each other the most harm!” We need to examine Christian life around the time of Shakespeare and how the Reformation affected his countrymen. It is also important to thoroughly search Shakespeare’s texts to find the clues that will answer the question of how Shakespeare felt about the Jews.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when Shylock is introduced, Shakespeare’s intent is clearly to show that Shylock, as a Jew, is human and is reacting to a very difficult situation. Shylock gives a moving speech in which he says of Antonio, a Christian, who has borrowed money from him, “He hath disgraced me…and what’s his reason? I am a jew (3.1.53-7). This scene informs us that the Merchant of Venice is about the consequences of being a Jew in medieval England. It also shows us that Shakespeare’s intent was to create a character portraying Shakespeare’s own reaction to the reformation and the violence it incited between his fellow Christians, as well as the prejudice it encouraged against the Jews. Yet, this passage is often overlooked in discussions about Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism.
When I first decided to investigate Shakespeare’s attitude toward Jews, I remembered that in Henry V, Shakespeare portrayed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, important clergy in the Catholic Church, as money-hungry men. They plot to send the king to war where he and his subjects will probably lose their lives (1.1.1-19). Why did these “men of God” want to send men off to possible death? They are trying to keep the king from passing a law that would give over half of the church’s money and property to His Royal Highness. Previous monarchs had been prevented from passing this law and now, the archbishop lets it be known that he is willing to cause women to become widows and children to become fatherless by sending their husbands and fathers into battle. The archbishop tells the bishop that he must distract the king from passing the law because “If it pass against us, we lose the better half of our possession” (1.1.7-8). When I contrasted the way Shakespeare portrayed a Jewish moneylender with the way he portrayed these members of the clergy, it made me wonder what was it that shaped his view of religion.
The religious environment of the 1500s and the violent events it spawned would have shaped the 16th century man’s view of religion. The Reformation played a major role in forming the religious environment of Shakespeare’s community and those surrounding his hometown. Martin Luther, who spearheaded the Reformation, was a Catholic priest who came to the conclusion, after much study of the scriptures, that the church doctrine concerning the ability of the Pope to forgive sin needed to be changed (Works of Martin Luther, Luther 29-38). He felt that the Pope did not have the power to grant God’s forgiveness and that forgiveness came only through Christ. He presented his ideas for reformation of the Church and the Church rejected them. Luther was passionate about his religion and felt it was important for true Christians to understand that only Christ could grant true forgiveness, so he began to write religious and political leaders, trying to get support for his ideology. It was the misinterpretation of these writings that began the long and bloody conflict that pitted Christian against Christian and created a need for a scapegoat to take the reformer’s attention off of themselves.
The infamous Henry VIII fanned the flames of this religious reformation when he saw it as an opportunity to solve a personal problem. Henry wanted a divorce from Catharine of Aragon, but the Pope was standing in his way. Fortunately for Henry, he had the power to create changes that would solve his problem while furthering Martin Luther’s cause. Dennis Martin, in instructor of medieval and Reformation history at Loyola University, published an article in the journal Christian History that tells how Henry’s VIII’s solution to his marital woes worked to help the Reformation change the religious environment in England. This article cites The Act of Supremacy in 1534 and the Decree of March 1551 as major factors that fueled the fire of the Reformation (2). King Henry’s desire for a divorce caused him to initiate the Act of Supremacy allowing him to “be the supreme head of the Church of England” (Viorst 97). The Decree of March 1551 justified the monarchy’s procurement of the church’s financial resources due to the fact that “…the King’s Majestie has neede presently of a mass of money” (Martin 2).
It is easy to imagine how these two acts of Parliament certainly helped shape Shakespeare’s character development of the archbishop and the bishop in Henry V. We can certainly understand why Shakespeare would portray Catholic clergy as interested in holding on to their money and the church treasures at any cost. It can also help us to see how this religious and political interaction would influence Shakespeare to shape his Christian characters in The Merchant of Venice as money-hungry people. But, we must also ask how the Act of Supremacy and the Reformation affect the relationship between Jews and Christians in Shakespeare’s time, influencing his character development of Shylock, a Jew.
Imagine the effect of the Act of Supremacy on a Catholic country full of otherwise loyal English subjects. The monarch had become the religious leader. James Shapiro points out in Shakespeare and the Jews that national identity would have become enmeshed in religious identity. For an English Catholic, if the king disagreed with the Pope, the choice would be treason or disobedience with God (5). As a Jew living in America when George W. Bush moved into the Presidency, I got some idea of what this predicament was like. President Bush publicly declared that this country was a Christian country. I remember thinking, “Are Jews supposed to give up a faith we fought to keep alive for over 5000 years because my president has decided that to be a real American, we must be Christian?” Now, the table has turned a bit, and I read on networking websites that Christians feel that, because other religions are getting equal time and President Obama calls us a country of many religions, that Christianity is being stifled. Because I’ve watched this phenomenon of our nations leaders trying to make religion a part of the American national identity, I can un
derstand how Catholics and Protestants living during the Reformation would have felt discomfort because of the blurring of the lines between religious and national identity. An English citizen’s very identity was being called into question because of the Act of Supremacy.
An Englishman’s national identity was not the only thing being threatened by the Reformation and the Act of Supremacy. Though neither Martin Luther nor Henry VIII started their movements with the intention to incite violence and cause death, their endeavors to change the church were misinterpreted by some who carried out acts of horrendous violence against those who would not convert.
Christian attacked Christian as the violence spread through England. There were many instances of torture and murder such as one incident which took place on March 4, 1535. Four monks were hanged until they started to lose consciousness, taken down, their abdomens slit open, and their intestines were removed and roasted. So hot was the fervor of the Reformation that the perpetrators didn’t think that was sufficient violence to commit against the monks, so they pulled their hearts out of their bodies and beheaded them. The bodies were then quartered and the pieces were placed on posts in different parts of England as an example of what happens to those who do not accept the true religion (Martin 1). Does this help you to see why the Christians needed a scapegoat. They feared for their lives and needed some way to take the attention off of their own offense, that of being the wrong religion. Martin Luther gave them the perfect excuse to use the Jews as scapegoats.
Early in Luther’s quest to spread truth, he wrote to the Protestants, telling them to be kind to the Jews, to allow Jews to work alongside of Protestants, and to teach the scriptures to the Jews. But, the Jews, in good conscience, could not become Christians. Luther was incensed at their refusal to accept what he saw as the truth and his attitude toward them changed drastically. In his passion to bring everyone to the truth, Luther wrote again concerning the Jews to the Prostestants involved in bringing about his Reformation. This time, he incited them to violence, stating that they should fight the Jews. In the book On Jews and Their Lies, we can find Luther’s letters that show just how zealous he was in removing any impediment to spreading what he saw as the truth:
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools…This is to be done
in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that
we are Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly –
and I myself was unaware of it – will be pardoned by God. But if we,
now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for
Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about,
blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard
above), it would be the same as if we wer doing all this and even
worse…Second, I advise that their houses be razed and destroyed…Third,
I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which
such idolatry lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from
them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach
henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb (268-98).
This letter, specifically, allowed violence against Jews to become a way for Christians to win salvation for their people. It made the question not “Are you Protestant or Catholic” and turned it into “Are you
Christian or Jewish.”
Still, in this environment of torture and death, not all Christians joined the war against the Jews. Many men and women tried to protect the Jews. In the translation of a confession by Baruch, a Jew who was arrested during the inquisition, he said that a bailiff and sergeant, both Catholics, protected him from men killing Jews during the Reformation (Fournier). Even in a dangerously violent world, the Jews had sympathizers among the Christians. This leads us to the question as to whether Shakespeare, living in a time when the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism was still raging, was sympathetic to the Jews or had developed an anti-Semitic attitude. Our only authority on what Shakespeare felt or wanted his audience to feel about Shylock is in the text of the Merchant of Venice.
A fact that many people seem to overlook is that Shakespeare gives us information about the relationship between Antonio and Shylock in the play. The character of Shylock relates the history of their relationship when he says:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto, you have rated me
About my moneys and usuances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff’rance is the badge of our tribe).
You call me a misbeliever, a cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gabardine,
And all for the use of that which is mine own (1.3.116-23).
Shylock finishes this speech by asking Antonio if he really expects Shylock to ignore these humiliations by gladly offering to lend him money. Antonio warns Shylock that he should not grant the loan out of any hope of friendship because Antonio is planning to continue his mistreatment of the Jew (1.3.140-45).
To understand the message Shakespeare was trying to give his audience, we need to understand the significance of Antonio berating Shylock for usury, which means loaning money and charging interest. In Renaissance England, Jews were not allowed to be part of the feudal system of noblemen, serfs, and clergy. They were not allowed to belong to any of the guilds, artisan unions, or unions for craftsmen. Just like their Christian neighbors, they had families to feed, but the discrimination that was present against the Jews cut them off from any method of producing income. At the same time, there was a Canon Law of the church which forbade Christians from lending money for interest. Money lending financed many business ventures for the Christians and Jews alike, so there was a large demand for lenders. However, since the Christians weren’t allowed to provide this service for each other by their religion, they gladly accepted the money from Jews (Blech 160). Usury was, in most cases, the only avenue left to the Jew to provide for his family. Yet Shakespeare created his Antonio as an ungrateful man who berates Shylock for providing this service for his own business ventures. Here, Shakespeare is painting Shylock not as a money-hungry, evil Jew, but as the victim of a money-hungry, ungrateful Christian. If you continue to take this passage into account in evaluating the rest of the play, you will begin to get some sense of what Shakespeare was really trying to say about the Jews.
There are more clues within the story that we should consider, too. When Shylock decides that he will loan the money to Antonio and begins to figure out the interest on the loan, Antonio acts surprised that Shylock would expect him to pay interest (1.3.115). By having Antonio react with surprise to Shylock’s assumption that the loan an interest-bearing loan, Shakespeare is calling our attention to the fact that lending was a double-edged sword for Jews. Usury was a blessing to Jews because it provided them with a way to earn a living in a country that had blocked them from any other career path. However, when others objected to their charging interest, they were essentially saying that Jews had no right to earn a living. All humans need a way to provide food and shelter in order to survive. To deny someone the right to do so is to deny that they are human.
Shakespeare created Antonio to represent the general attitude of Christians of the 16th century. They needed money to finance their business ventures, but were disgusted by the Jews whose money they needed. Although I don’t agree with their attitude, I think we can understand why they would feel this way. Their religious leaders taught them that charging interest on a loan was so
evil that they were forbidden to do it. Some of those religious leaders, as we discussed before, were also their national leaders, so usury could have been equated with treason. Yet, here were Jews who were charging interest and living fairly well on it. Without doing some critical thinking, the Christians could have felt the Jews were breaking the laws of God and Man by charging interest. Antonio is a symbolic representation of the 16th Century Christian who did not understand Judaism, was taught by his religious leaders that anyone not believing in Christ was a sinner, and was shown by political legislation that Jews were not even worthy to look for work in the same place as a Christian. The Jews were considered aliens by their Christian neighbors, even if they had been born in England and were loyal English subjects. Christians during that time period needed to stress to their neighbors that they were “one of them” because of the inquisitions caused by the Reformation. They borrowed money from the Jews to finance their speculative ventures while hating them for their differences. It is easy to see how this environment would affect the opinions of a 16th century playwright living in England during that time. Playwrights often use their plays as mirrors to show society it’s flaws. Using Shylock and Antonio’s interaction was a good way to show the inequities that existed in the political and religious environment of Shakespeare’s day.
If we miss the dynamics of the relationships that Shakespeare has set up between Shylock, Antonio, and Antonio’s friend Bassanio, but we look at the religious environment he lived in, it is easy to see why one would assume Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. Shylock is a Jew who asks for a pound of flesh as payment for a defaulted loan. Antonio is a man who owes him money and is unfortunate enough to have several of his ventures fail, causing him to default on the loan. Bassanio is asking for the money in order to pursue love. On the surface, it seems that Shakespeare has set Shylock up as the villain. But, there is more than the surface to the interactions of these characters and we need to comb through all of the text to really understand why Shakespeare developed these characters the way he did.
In the Merchant of Venice, Antonio borrows money so that his friend, Bassanio can court a rich woman. Bassanio confesses that he has “disabled the estate by showing a more swelling port than my faint means would grant continuance” (1.1.130-32). In other words, he has been foolishly living beyond his means. He tells Antonio that he wants to marry Portia, a woman who he begins describing as a woman who has inherited much wealth. He does talk of how beautiful she is, but focuses on her financial status. The woman is rich and therefore, will have many rich suitors (1.1.168-83). Bassanio is not worthy to court her for he has squandered his money. Therefore, Bassanio asks Antonio to finance his courtship with Portia. Shakespeare has painted Bassanio as a foolish opportunist who has thrown away his money. He also shows us that Bassanio wants to marry Portia for her money and is willing to use Antonio for his money. None of these relationships are based on real love. Bassanio is a user.
Now look further at how Shakespeare develops the relationship between Antonio and Shylock. As was discussed before, Antoion publicly insults Shylock for charging interest on loans, even though that was Shylock’s only way to earn a living. Antonio called Shylock a dog and spit on his clothes and even in his beard (1.3.116-29). Naturally Shylock would hate Antonio for such treatment and would have long wished for a chance to get revenge. Also, Shakespeare allows us to see that Shylock feels that he would be morally wrong to forgive Antonio for his mistreatment because Antonio’s motivation is his prejudice against Jews. Shylock feels that any forgiveness on his part would be a betrayal of all Jews (1.3.48-52). Also, Antonio asks Shylock for money while making it clear that he still plans to consider Shylock an enemy. We need to pay close attention to the order of the texts here. Shylock’s request for a pound of Antonio’s flesh comes after Antonio acts surprised that Shylock will be earning interest on the loan and after Antonio’s insistence that Shylock is still his enemy (1.3.158-163). Shakespeare is not minimizing Shylock’s wish for revenge, but at the same time, he is showing us that this Jew had good reason to hate Antonio.
Contrast this with the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. Remember, Bassanio has squandered his money and is now looking for a rich wife. Antonio is more than willing to give his money (actually Shylock’s money) to this foolish man who Shakespeare has created as a somewhat materialistic young man, interested in making his future wife’s wealth his own. The Bassanio/Antonio relationship is a contrast to the Shylock/Antonio relationship. In the first, Bassanio doesn’t really care about Antonio, but wants his money and Antonio gives him respect and friendship. Shylock has been there when Antonio needed him, wanted to be his friend, and yet, Antonio treats him with disgust and disrespect. Why would Shakespeare use such a contrast in his play? Shakespeare is telling his audience of the blindness created by prejudice. Antonio is obviously a good Christian with a good heart, for he is willing to give 3000 ducats to Bassanio to win a rich wife after he has squandered his own money. Yet, Antonio resents Shylock for expecting him to pay the interest on the loan, knowing that the interest is Shylock’s only income. Shakespeare expresses his own belief that this behavior is unreasonable by having Shylock make the speech that I mentioned in the second paragraph of this essay, in which he stresses that he is human, he feels pain, bleeds, loves, and hates, just like the Christians. Shakespeare makes his Jew a real person with weaknesses who, after a long history of mistreatment, will want revenge, just as a Christian would (3.1.52-72).
The taking of the pound of flesh from a man sounds brutal to those of us living in the 21st century. But we must remember that Shakespeare was born only 29 years after the incident with the four monks that I mentioned earlier. Also, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old, he most certainly heard the news about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which Catholics slaughtered 30,000 Huguenots, including children, as they slept in their bed (Dimont 230). The time of the Reformation was a bloody, violent time to live. The news of the late 16th century would have carried many tales of torture and slaughter. The pound of flesh that Shakespeare had Shylock ask for was nothing compared to the intense violence Christian had committed against Christian. Such a contrast was not accidental. It was intended to show audiences Shakespeare’s disgust at the violence Christians were committing against each other and the unbridled prejudice against the Jews. When taken out of our modern-day context and set in a time period when death and hate were the tools being used to reform Christianity, Shakespeare’s text appears more like a mild reproof to those around him rather than an anti-Semitic statement. Shakespeare was showing us that to look at each other like aliens, to deny each other basic human rights, and to kill each other only leads to more violence. Shylock is definitely a character produced by Shakespeare to be his voice protesting the violation of human rights that was rampant in the religious and political environments of 16th century England.
Blech, Rabbi Benjamin. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and
Culture. New York: Alpha Books, 1999.
Dimont, Max I. Jews, God, and History. New York: Simon and Schuster,
Fournier, Jacques. “The Inquisition Record of Jacques Fournier of Parniers
1318-1325.” Trans. Nancy P. Stork. Vatican Library Lat. MS 4030.
Ed. Nancy P. Stork, San Jose State Univ, 1996. 28 Feb 2002
her, Martin. On the Jews and Their Lies. Trans. By Martin H. Bertram.
Fortress Press, 1955
Luther, Martin. Works of Martin Luther. Trans. & Ed. Adolph Spaeth, L.D.
Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et al. Philadelphia: A.J. Holman, 1915.
Martin, Dennis. “What Was it Like to be on the Losing Side of England’s
Reformation?” Christian History 48.14, No. 4. qtd in Catholic
Counterpoint August 1996 online posting
Shakespeare, William. Henry V, The New Folger Library. Eds. Barbara A.
Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square, 1995.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, The New Folger Library.
Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington
Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Charlton, H.B. Shakespeare’s Jews qtd in Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism:
The Question of Shylock by Grant Stirling, February 1997, York Univ.,
Toronto, Canada. 7 March 2002
Viorst, Milton ed. The Great Documents of Western Civilization. New
York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.