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The Merchant of Venice

Oscar, KP, Julia, Sofia, Roz

The Venetian Ghetto

Historical Persecution of Jews

Got worse and worse up through Middle Ages

Early Modern period

Marked by pogroms, expulsion, and discrimination

Fluctuated heavily

Shakespeare’s time and his historical context

Shakespeare’s context

Jews made into scapegoats

Host desecration

Blood libel

Seen as a 5th column

Paradoxes of persecution

Discriminated against yet vital to society



The Venetian Ghetto during Shakespeare’s time

Founded in 1516

Received refugees from Spain and Portugal

Not a homogenous community

Synagogues divided based on ethnic identity

Hierarchy of ethnicity

After Shakespeare

Conditions remained dismal up until

emancipation from ghetto

Napoleon liberated the ghetto with the

conquest of Venice in 1797

Judaism vs. Christianity

Ideological Similarities
 Monotheism
 “Hebrew”
 Notion
 Special


of “afterlife”  
plan for the nation of Israel

 Relationship

with God 

 Consequences

of sin

Ideological Differences: Role of Jesus Christ



1. Teaches that Jesus was the
fulfillment of the Old Testament
prophecy of a coming Messiah 
2. Jesus was God in the form of a
human being (i.e. God made flesh),
who came to earth with the intent
of laying down his life for the sins
of mortals  
3. Kingdom of Israel now applies to all
those who follow Jesus--Abraham’s
intellectual descendants 

1. Recognizes Jesus as a great teacher,
and maybe a prophet of God, but not
the Messiah 
2. Messiah is a human, non-divine person
who will restore the kingdom of Israel
physically, rebuild the great temple of
Jerusalem, and bring about earthly
3.  Deny that the sacrifice of Jesus was
necessary, or that he was the son of

Ideological Differences: Sin and Atonement


Jesus Christ made the ultimate
sacrifice, so his death was sufficient
payment for mortal sins—assuming you
maintain a relationship with God
through prayer

Sincere prayer, and sacrifice in
the ancient temple of Jerusalem,
were the only way to be absolved
for sins committed. 

The original sin tainted humanity, so
we are born sinful. Christ’s sacrifice is
how we have been saved.

No one is born good or bad, but a
mixture of both qualities. We are
given the free will to make our
own decisions, be they good or

Ideological Differences: Medicine

The church in the middle ages taught
that illness was caused by the devil.
Anyone who was ill was expected to see
a priest in order to be cured, rather
than seeking other means of relief.

Jewish and Muslim schools at the
time taught that diseases were
caused by natural problems, and
offered the means of relief that
were discouraged by the church.

The clergy complained that "it were better to die with Christ
than to be cured by a Jew doctor aided by the devil.”

Why all the hostility?
There was one grudge
against Jews that
Medieval Christians
could not forgive:

”…the Jews, by their own guilt,
are consigned to perpetual
servitude because they crucified
the Lord...As slaves rejected by
God, in whose death they
wickedly conspire, they shall by
the effect of this very action,
recognize themselves as the
slaves of those whom Christ's
death set free...”
-Pope Innocent III

Revenge for the “Crime”

Blood libel—The belief that the Jews stole and killed Christian infants and
young boys to drain their blood for ritual use, including the baking of
unleavened bread for Passover. 

Saint Simon of Trent

Host libel—Christians were tricked by villainous Jews into stealing the
Eucharist during mass so that it could be vilified. Thus they were able to
“torture” Christ. 

Both libels connected to the accusation that Jews were responsible for the
death of Christ 

Revenge for the “Crime”

The Black Death originated in the Far East, and European populations were
decimated. Looking for someone to blame, they noted that a smaller percentage
of Jews caught the disease; this was likely due to the Jewish sanitary and dietary
laws, which they had maintained from the time of the Old Testament.

Rumors circulated that Satan was protecting the Jews and that they were
repaying him for his protection by poisoning the water supplies used by Christians

The solution reached was to purge the Jewish communities. "In Bavaria...12,000
Jews...perished; near Tours, an immense trench was dug, filled with blazing
wood and in a single day 160 Jews were burned."

Revenge for the “Crime”

1321: In France, Jews were accused of having incited criminals to poison wells.
5,000 were burned alive.

1347 +: The Black Death

1354: 12,000 Jews executed in Toledo.

1478: The Spanish Inquisition begins in order to detect insincere conversions of
Spanish Jews.

1516: The Governor of the Republic of Venice decrees that Jews would be
permitted to live only in the "Ghetto Novo.”

Anti-Semitism Portrayed in The Merchant of Venice:

Launcelot (of Shylock): …the Jew my master who…is a kind of devil…Certainly the
Jew is the very devil incarnation…

Solanio (of Shylock): Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for
here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. 

Duke (to Antonio): I am sorry for thee. Thou art come to answer a stony adversary,
an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.

Gratanio: O be thou damned, inexcurable dog, and for thy life let justice be
accused! Thou almost mak’st me waver in my faith… thy currish spirit… for thy
desires are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous.  

The tone of the selected excerpts from The Merchant of Venice can be generalized
in the words of Pope Innocent III:
“When Jews are admitted out of pity into familiar intercourse with Christians, they
repay their hosts, according to the popular proverb, after the fashion of the rat
hidden in the sack, or the snake in the bosom, or of the burning brand in one’s lap.”

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Shylock – who is he?

The plays antagonist?

Villain or victim?

Shylock - continued

Jews – controlled money lending

What was this stereotype like during the times?

Audience opinions of Shylock

Pre-money lending?

Demanding pound of human flesh (trial)?

Void of everything in the end?

Shylock - continued

Shylock - be the obstacle / man who stands in the way of the love stories


What does Portia represent compared to Shylock?

What are the repercussions according to the law, and then according to

Shylock’s Character Argument
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
— Act III, scene I

Shakespeare’s Inspiration and Influences
 Il

Pecorone, “the big sheep” or “simpleton”
(1558) -Giovanni Fiorentino

 Many

similarities to the play



of Belmont


borrowed from a Jew, a pound of flesh
promised as bond


disguises as a male lawyer

Fairy-tales and Legends

Test of three caskets is a popular motif

Gesta Romanorum

Latin collection of anecdotes and tales

The three caskets







Jewish Influence

Jew of Malta (1590) – Christopher

Barbaras, Jewish anti-hero at center
of plot

Lopez Affair (1594)

Roderigo Lopez, physician to Queen
Elizabeth I

Jewish ancestry

Executed under suspicion of plotting
to poison the Queen


The differences between the text and
the movie

Racism accurately portrayed in the movie, true to the text.

Shylock is made into a villain in both the text and the movie.

Homosexual subtext becomes reality in the film.

Shylock’s “do Jews not bleed” monologue is leant the same weight in the
movie- important for accurate portrayal of racist culture.

The movie endeavors to make Antonio seem more repentant of his ingrained


Did the movie accurately portray the distinction between a gift and a theft?

Did it break the Gift Bible?

How does the merchant of Venice illustrate the ways in which prejudice and
privilege operate in society?

Does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock change how you think of him?