Part III: Antisemitism in Shakespeare

“A widespread independence of thought, a purer simpler faith, a deep religious earnestness, great vigour of imagination, a burning jubilant patriotism, all these are reflected in the literary outpourings of the time, the lusty spirit of the age producing new literary forms, lyrics, sonnets, pastorals, religious and metaphysical poems, and, supreme among them all, the plays of Shakespeare” (Samuel 23)

The Merchant of Venice (1600) by William Shakespeare is a response to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589). Why did Shakespeare call his play The Merchant of Venice rather than The Jew of Venice? In both dramas, a central focus is an avaricious Jew. “Shakespeare owes Marlowe much, both in the choice of material and in the many echoes which show how his assimilative ear had taken the rich suggestiveness of his contemporary’s style.” (Humphreys 279)

Look at the other elements: revenge, father-daughter relations, an acquisitive hero, but with a Christian political-business figure in Marlowe and a Venetian aristocrat in Venice who invests in the speculative business of overseas trade. Further, the antisemitism in Marlowe’s play is much more vicious, much more aggressive and much less subtle than in Shakespeare. Marlowe invents the core wonderful plot from which Shakespeare steals, while The Merchant of Venice is crammed with marvelous poetry.

Why is money lending so important at the end of the sixteenth century? Why and how does Marlowe suck in the audience so they participate viscerally in Jew-hatred? Shakespeare, on the other hand, keeps his audience at a distance as the spectators watch a gladiatorial battle between ostensible noble ideals and the ruthlessness of the new bourgeoisie. “The Merchant of Venice… presents a plot to which we must respond as to a golden ideal, and also as to a human action.” (Humphreys 280).

Let me provide a bit of background as an answer. In 1204, Pope Innocent III issued a document entitled, “Protest to Philip Augustus of France Against Royal Protection of Jewish Money-Lenders.” In the Pope’s dispute with Philip Augustus over the seizure of Normandy by the English, a military operation allegedly financed by loans from Jews, the Pope, as the moral leader of Christendom, attacked the English for encouraging usurious practices rather than for a military assault. Philip countered artifice with misleading moves of his own. He expelled the Jews, but then surreptitiously readmitted them upon payment of a fine. Thus, he acknowledged the pope’s primacy in morality while, at the same time, he made money off his compliance.

At the same time, capitalist Christian lenders, the Caurisines, were lending money to other political and societal leaders, including the pope himself. They made the usury of the Jews appear miniscule, but they were part of the financial shakedown system. They laundered their proceeds from interest by engaging in trade. Since many of England’s elite were heavily indebted to them, they used their position to instigate the ban against Jews in England in 1290. In one stroke, they eliminated the competition and, at the same time, were applauded for their high sense of morality.

Hence, the Jews became villains, not primarily for deicide, but for their involvement in money-lending. Both Shylock and Barabas were money-lenders. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice appears also to share similar characteristics to Barabas in The Jew of Malta. One similarity is their devotion to their daughters as well as the continuity of Judaism, a continuity built on the exploitation of women.

The theme of that treatment of women can be found in both plays.

Women are doormats

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

Female love and self-sacrifice are counterpoised against material accumulation. Shylock and Barabas are both Jews. While Shylock fantasizes about having his pound of flesh, Barabas desires wanton slaughter. For both men, the second most important thing for them is their daughters. Greed and lust after money presumably propelled their daughters to reject their fathers and flee into the arms of gentiles. But note some crucial differences. Shylock was a money lender and fully justified in demanding repayment of his loan; Barabas used his wealth to lend out money to a political leader in need of funds to finance a war. But why would Shylock demand a pound of flesh if Antonio welched on his loan repayment because his investment in trade was totally lost because the ship sunk?

Further, it is Antonio who is the trickster and double-dealer in Shakespeare’s play. Yet the play inverts justice and turns Shylock into the villain. If my interpretation of The Jew of Malta is correct, in the inversion in Marlowe, the Christians are found more wanting than the Jews. In Shakespeare, in spite of Antonio’s bankruptcy, in fact perhaps because of it, in spite of Antonio’s breaking a solemn contract, it is Shylock who is held to be the villain. Why are they villains? Because they lack Montaigne’s empathy, his sympathy and identification with the other. In both plays, each of the main characters is offered a new deal if only they convert to Christianity. They refuse. But in the refusal, Barabas becomes a mystery while Shylock is humanized in the beautifully poetic monolog he articulates.

Or is it because they expose the hypocrisy of the Christians? Further, they are both deeply loyal to their Jewish identity. In both plays, each of the main characters is offered a new deal if only they convert to Christianity. Each refused. However, in the refusal, Barabas emerged as a secretive satanic figure while Shylock was humanized.

SHYLOCK: You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine, […] ‘Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last, You spurned me such a day; another time You called me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys.’

ANTONIO I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (Shakespeare 1.3.121-122; 135-141)

SHYLOCK’S eventual response:

“To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. 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, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled 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 wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs 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 will better the instruction.” (Shakespeare 3.1. 56-58)

Marlowe stresses the differences between Jews, at least the perceived difference – the bulbous nose, the dirty clothing, the bad manners; he exaggerates the caricature. The above soliloquy celebrates the sameness of all humans. Shakespeare performs a balancing act between the villainy of Jews and Christians while Marlowe appears to fault Jews, but a deeper probe suggests that Christians are the worse villains. If that is the case, why do members of the audience in the end of Shakespeare’s play in most modern productions often have more sympathy for Shylock while the audience would lynch Barabas if they could and if he had not been killed by the end.

Shylock’s has a passion for fair play or vengeance. However, he is really incensed at the

loss of his daughter. That helped make him human while Barabas, driven by a similar motive, becomes a monster. In Shakespeare, the Christian court shows, not blindfolded justice, but blinding injustice and bias. In the case of Barabas, there is no court to adjudicate anything and he dies inadvertently by his own hand. If Shakespeare is the better poet, Marlowe is the more sensational dramatist.

In both Shakespeare and Marlowe, for the gentile, fraud is the sign of a Jew, whereas the opposite is an act of compassion and love. Barabas has a dark personality which makes the reader feel no pity for him; he is identified with being a wrecker. Shakespeare draws a picture of the unfair situation of Elizabethan Jews. “Marlowe cuts a single-minded and powerful cleft through his startling material. Shakespeare myriad-minded and richly humane explores the varying shades and colors which make up human nature.” (Humphreys 279).

Religion is far more prominent in Marlowe, while culture and class are the more important elements in Shakespeare. He uncritically intertwines the fears of the English people reinforced by religious stereotypes – a “finger of birth-strangled babe” (Shakespeare 121; 4.1.30). The character of the Jews arises from an inordinate supply of bile from the liver, the source of the Choleric humour, explaining the bad temper and rush to rage of the Jew. In the end, the difference is anatomical resting as it does in the “Liver of blaspheming Jew.” (Shakespeare 121; 4.1.26) In effect, Jews and witches belong to the same order of humanity, worthy targets of exclusion and elimination.

That is the ultimate irony. While Shakespeare humanizes the Jew, he also provides a physiological (hence racist) and not just a cultural and anti-Judaic ground for despising Jews. Marlowe, on the other hand, provides the most extreme caricature of Jews. However, in portraying Christians as much worse, he ends up exhibiting more empathy for Jews, even though he, like Shakespeare, portrayed their character based on ignorance rather than informed opinion.


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