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The Merchant of Venice

Helpful links & resources

Here are links to some helpful resources for our study of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"

No Fear Shakespeare version, providing the original text and a modern English translation side-by-side for easy comprehension:

Audio file of the play for download or online listening:

The character of Shylock and history:

Below you will find links to the 1974 version set in a more modern time period but still holding true to the original Shakespeare dialogue. This version stars Laurence Olivier as Shylock. You can watch it in its entirety here. Just follow the links in order.

History of the Jews in England during Shakespeare's lifetime

The Merchant of Venice – historical context

Why did Shakespeare portray the character of Shylock the way he did when there were no Jews in England during his lifetime?

The history of the Jews in England reveals at least three things:

1) It is clear that the Jews were persecuted, demonized, and murdered in England up until the expulsion of 1290. That persecution was based on both religious grounds and upon the position that the Jews held in the financial structure of the society.

2) It is also clear that Shakespeare had probably never met a Jew because Jews had been expelled three and one-half centuries before he lived.

3) But what remains less clear is precisely the image of the Jew that Shakespeare inherited after Jews were out of England for over 300 years.

It is safe to say that the image Shakespeare and his contemporaries held of the Jews was mostly unfavorable. One can strongly argue that the absence of Jews in England allowed a popular negative image of the Jew to become a deeply ingrained cultural stereotype that became part of the public imagination. Without flesh and blood Jews around to reveal absurdity of that stereotype of the demonic murderous Jew, it became an exaggerated and more powerful part of Elizabethan folklore. So Shakespeare probably relied primarily upon inherited cultural stereotypes, common folk-wisdom about the demonic Jew, as well as literary sources when he sketched his character of Shylock for The Merchant of Venice.

1066 -Jews enter England
In the course of a generation, Jews establish communities in London, York, Bristol, Canterbury, and begin to prosper by trading, lending money to the baronage and by advancing money to the Crown in order to secure the revenues of the Government. In this way, the Jewish community serves a vital role for the State treasury. As a result, the Crown protects the Jewish financiers and their assets.

1144 - First ritual murder charge, or case of "blood libel" involving William of Norwich
The case of 1144 involves William of Norwich. Although the illustration above depicts a different case of blood libel, the allegations of blood libel always involve similar elements: the Jews were supposed to have purchased an innocent Christian child just before the Jewish celebration of Pesach (Passover), which commemorates the flight of the Jews, under the direction of Moses, from Egyptian persecution and slavery. During Pesach, the Jews of Norwich were supposed to have tortured the innocent child William with all the barbarities that were visited upon Jesus during the crucifixion. The torture of William was supposed to be part of some bizarre and satanic Pesach ritual. The blood of the Christian child, as illustrated above, was supposedly collected for use in the Pesach Seder (ritual meal). The torture was supposed to have culminated in the death of the child and the subsequent burial of the body by the Jews.
As a result of these allegations of "blood libel" Jewish settlements were attacked. Even though Pope Innocent IV protested the absurdity and falsity of the blood libel charge, an image of a murderous Jew who was bent upon spoiling Christian innocence began to develop a firm footing in the social consciousness of the general public.

1189 -the Third Crusade
In order to finance the tremendous expense of the Crusade, the Jews were assessed higher rate of taxation than rest of England: i.e. Jews were taxed 1/4 of their moveable property while rest of England was assessed 1/14. Although Jews constituted less than 1/4% of English population, the Jews contributed 8% of the total income to the Royal treasury. However, the pro-Christian ideology and zealotry that is part of any Crusade resulted in some rioting in England. As a direct consequence of that rioting, some Jewish businesses burned in London. The destruction of Jewish assets was bad news for the Jews, of course, but it was also bad news for the Crown who viewed the Jews' lost income as lost taxation revenue. That is, if the Jews lost property, the Crown lost the taxes they could levy against that property. So in order to protect what had become a valuable financial resource, the Crown established The Exchequer of the Jews.

1194 -Crown establishes Exchequer of the Jews
The Exchequer of the Jews is a catalogue of all Jewish holdings in England. This registry allowed the Crown to systematically exploit Jewish resources by arbitrarily collecting taxes upon the revenues that the Jewish community collected from those resources. The Jews responded to this tax upon their revenues by charging higher and higher rates of interest on the loans that they extended to their customers. This hike in interest rates only increased the unpopularity of Jewish money-lenders in general. The Jews effectively became pawns of the Crown in a kind of perverted "trickle-down economics" whereby the Jews indirectly collected taxes for the Crown: by selectively taxing the Jewish financial wealth at higher and higher rates, Jews were forced to charge more and more interest, and the borrowers were forced to pay more and more money. This structure of exploitation inevitably propped up the coffers of the Crown.

1217 -English Jews made to wear yellow badges
This is the year that English Jews were made to wear yellow badges to identify them as Jews. It is perhaps inevitable that this yellow badge, which functions as an obvious marker of the status of the Jew as an alien within English society, will bring to mind the yellow stars that Jews of Europe were forced to wear during Nazi occupation in World War II. The fact that Jews were set apart from the rest of English society with this visible marker sets the stage for their increasing segregation and persecution.

1255 -blood libel case: Hugh of Lincoln
This case involves the death of Hugh of Lincoln. The facts of the case are that Hugh, a young Christian boy, ran after a ball and fell into a Jewish cesspool. He drowned there and his body was found 26 days later, during the Jewish wedding of a prominent Rabbi. The fact that a large congregation of Jews had come to Lincoln to celebrate the Rabbi's marriage fueled Christian speculation that the Jews had killed the boy as part of some bizarre ritual ceremony. As a result of the accusations of "blood libel" that arose in the wake of the death of Hugh of Lincoln, 100 Jews were executed. The story of Hugh of Lincoln is celebrated in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. "The Prioress's Tale" tells of a young Christian innocent who is singing some Christian hymn while walking through the Jewish section of town. The Jews, presumable outraged at the boy's Christian piety, slit his throat and dispose of the body. But the boy keeps singing even after death, which allows his body to be discovered. The supernatural nature of the boy's singing ensures his eventual canonization as a saint.

1265 -rising influence of Italian bankers makes Jewish financial services superfluous
The fact that the English Crown now turned away from the English Jews and sought financial aid from the Italian bankers paved the way for the waning influence and importance of the Jews in English society. The Jews, in effect, were of less use to the Crown, so that Crown had less interest in maintaining and protecting Jewish rights.

1269 -Jewish rights gradually restricted
The Crown no longer allowed Jews to hold land, nor were Jews allowed to bequeath money to an heir: Jewish children could no longer inherit the money of their parents. In effect, a Jew was a royal serf whose money was absorbed by the Crown upon death.

1290 -Jews expelled from England
This is the year, under reign of Edward I, that all Jews are expelled from England. Although some Jews managed to stay in England by hiding their identity and religion, the overwhelming majority of Jews--about 16,000 altogether--were forced from England. Many made their way to France and settled there. But this expulsion led to three and a half centuries--350 years--of Jewish exile from England. This fact is vitally important to understanding the relationship between Shakespeare, Elizabethan society, and anti-Semitism because Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who lived roughly between 1580-1620, had never seen a Jew in their lives. All the Jews had been expelled about 300 years before Shakespeare was born!

1589 -Marlowe's Jew of Malta performed
1594 -execution of Roderigo Lopez
1597 -Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
1655 -Manasseh Ben Israel negotiates with Cromwell for re-admission of Jews into England

Study Questions

Answer the following study questions in short paragraph form. Support all answers with reasons or examples from the play.

1. Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite (prejudice towards Jews)? Or was he using Shylock to arouse opposition to anti-Semitism?

2. The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy. Do you agree that it should instead by called a tragicomedy?

3. Why is the play entitled The Merchant of Venice? Who is the merchant?

4. In Medieval and Renaissance times, why was Venice such an ideal city for a merchant to conduct business?

5. Why does Portia, a woman of astute intellect, abide by her father's plan to have her marry a man selected by chance? Does Portia do anything to help her favorite suitor choose the right casket?

6. What do you think Portia would have done if the wrong man had selected the right casket?

7. In the seventh scene of Act II, the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket and discovers a message therein that opens with this famous line: "All that glisters [glitters] is not gold." What does this line mean?

8. Do you agree or disagree with Antonio's condition that Shylock become a Christian?

9. Is Shylock really a villain, or is he merely trying to right past wrongs?

10. The last act seems to be merely added on in order to finish the play. Support the statement that Act V is an important part of the play.

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 1

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 2

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 3

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 4

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 5

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 6

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 7

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 8

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 9

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 10

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 11

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 12

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 13

The Merchant of Venice (1974) Pt. 14

The Merchant of Venice - 2004 (Rated R)