The Merchant of Venice Anti Semitism
The Merchant of Venice - Anti-Semitism
William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains many examples that insult Jews because they were the minority in London in Shakespeare’s time. Although many parts of the play could be interpreted as offensive in modern times, Elizabethan audiences found them comical. The majority of London’s population at the time was anti-Semitic because there were very few Jews living there. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice supports anti-Semitism actions and thoughts and therefore proves that Shakespeare was an anti-Semite.
In the second act, Launcelot is debating with himself whether or not he should seek a new employer. Launcelot’s problem is that he works for Shylock, who is Jewish. Launcelot persuades himself that, “Certainly the Jew [Shylock] is the very devil incarnation…” (2.2.24) Eventually, Launcelot convinces himself that he would much rather run away than be ruled by a Jew. Launcelot presents this argument to his father: “I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.” (2.2.104) Before Launcelot accepts a new job with Bassanio as his master, he is reminded that Bassanio is much poorer than Shylock. His reply to Bassanio was, “You have the grace of / God, sir, and he [Shylock] hath enough.” (2.2.139-40)
Lorenzo insults Shylock behind his back when he tells Jessica (Shylock’s daughter) that if Shylock ever makes it to heaven, it is only because Jessica converted to Christianity. Lorenzo said, “If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven, / It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake…” (2.4.36-7) When Lorenzo says this, he is implying that Shylock’s faith and his Jewish heritage is not strong enough to get him into heaven. Lorenzo says that if Shylock is saved, it is by his Jessica’s sake, because she has chosen Christianity over Judaism. This statement implies that Lorenzo believes that Christianity is the religion that is powerful enough to admit one into heaven; therefore Lorenzo is biased against anyone that is not a Christian, such as Shylock the Jew.
Later in the play Jessica is insulted by Launcelot. Launcelot believes that parents’ sins are passed down to their children. He also believes that being Jewish is a sin. Launcelot frankly tells Jessica his opinion of her: “For truly I think you are damned.” (3.5.5) He explains that she is damned by both her father and mother because she was born Jewish. Launcelot tells Jessica that her only hope is that, “Your father got / you not–that you are not the Jew’s daughter.” (3.5.9-10) When Jessica hears this, she defends herself by telling Launcelot, “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made / me a Christian.” (3.5.17-8) This conversation between Launcelot and Jessica supports that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic because it states that Jews can only be saved by becoming Christians.
Throughout The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses examples of anti-Semitism. An Elizabethan audience would have perceived these situations as humorous because it was their reality. But to a Semite or a modern audience, this play may seem offensive and attacking. Launcelot decided to find a new master because he thought that being around Jews was dangerous to his health and mind. Lorenzo stated that the only way Shylock would get to heaven is by his gentle daughter (because she converted to Christianity). And Launcelot told Jessica that she was damned because she was born Jewish. The three discussed are only a few of the insulting situations that Shakespeare presents for Jews and modern audiences in The Merchant of Venice that prove that he was anti-Semitic.