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In the play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is pretty much disdained and humiliated only because he was a Jew. His thirst for revenge against Antonio is fuelled by the fact that Antonio constantly humiliates Shylock in front of his fellow merchants.

Even at the end, after Portia skilfully tricks Shylock, Shylock is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity for going on a revenge mission against a man who insulted and berated him.

Was Shakespeare a religious fanatic for having Shylock go through a forced conversion? Or was it necessary because of the times in which Shakespeare had to write the book?

  • 1
    It's worth noting that Shylock says of Antonio, "I hate him for he is a Christian." The religious bigotry portrayed in the play isn't all one way. – Rand al'Thor Feb 3 '17 at 18:34
  • @Randal'Thor True. But at the same time, Shylock also mentions that he hates him for him lending money without interest. – Sid Feb 3 '17 at 18:36
  • Sure. And in any case, your question seems to be less about the religious bigotry portrayed in the play and more about the religious bigotry which went into the making of the play, e.g. in the stereotyping of the character Shylock. – Rand al'Thor Feb 3 '17 at 18:40
  • jv.gilead.org.il/FAQ/#B9 "Was Jules Verne anti-Semite?" from the Jules Verne FAQ is tangentially relevant. – b_jonas Feb 4 '17 at 11:41
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I don't believe it would be right to call him a religious fanatic. His plays contain both pro- and anti-Christian elements, all of which seem to be more about playing into the sense of the times than any personal conviction. There are hints that he may have been a crypto-Catholic (as his father was accused of, the nature of the Ghost in Hamlet, and so on), but it would have been suicide to be a fanatical Catholic in Elizabeth's England.

Rather, I'd say the treatment of Shylock is more a matter of the prevailing mores of his time. He was no more anti-semitic than most Englishmen, which is to say, pretty anti-semitic. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and would not be allowed back in until decades after Shakespeare's death. The Jew would have been a stock character, and Shakespeare was drawing on the same sources that inspired the evil Barabas.

Shakespeare had a fondness for anti-heroes, like Macbeth and Richard III. He often gave them very sympathetic speeches, and any discussion of anti-semitism in Merchant must be tempered by the "Hath not a Jew hands..." speech. While Shylock is in many ways a stock greedy Jew ("My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!"), he has that one magnificent, deeply human speech.

So in the end I think it's best to treat Shakespeare's characters, and Shakespeare, as simply human, both good and bad. Religion wasn't a huge deal to him: it figures in his plays in many ways, both serious and as a figure of fun... just like real human beings. His plays were rarely fables with morals. They're stories, of people, with no simple moral summary.

  • I downvoted this answer because it doesn't cite any sources. If you are going to make arguments about what life was like in the time of Shakespeare, you need to explain where you're getting your information from. – user111 Feb 3 '17 at 21:20
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    @Hamlet Although, subjects like the expulsion of the Jews from England and the Protestant/Catholic conflict is fairly common knowledge, easily validated. – DukeZhou Feb 3 '17 at 21:29
  • OK, I didn't realize that was required. I thought of all of this stuff as reasonably well known or readily verifiable. But I've added links. is that better? – Joshua Engel Feb 3 '17 at 21:48
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    To say without qualification that Shakespeare's father was a crypto-Catholic, and that there are hints he himself was one too, begs the question. In Shakespeare studies, William's alleged Catholicism is treated as equivalent to the authorship question, where ill-informed partisans claim that Bacon, or Oxford, or Marlowe, and not the man from Avon, is the "real" writer of the plays. As a scholar says in a link you provide: “The regular revival of an old fashion for maintaining that Shakespeare was a Catholic is based on no reliable external evidence that will stand up". – verbose Feb 6 '17 at 3:15
  • Thank you, @verbose. I've moderated the language. I consider the evidence that his father fairly certain, but it's not conclusive. It doesn't mean that William was; it's merely evidence in its favor. I think it more likely that it influenced his attitudes than that he practiced. – Joshua Engel Feb 6 '17 at 16:52
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Like most English people until well into the twentieth century, Shakespeare was baptized into the Anglican church, but it does not follow that he was himself any more religious than the average Englishman of his time; and the treatment of Jews in The Merchant of Venice is a weak basis for the argument that Shakespeare himself was a devout Christian.

To begin with, there's the obvious fact that devout Christianity is not a prerequisite for antisemitism: Hitler's skepticism toward the church is well attested. So the fact that Shakespeare's play could be considered antisemitic tells us nothing about his Christianity or lack thereof.

Second, there's the example of Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe. His The Jew of Malta is far more gleeful in its antisemitism than even The Merchant of Venice. Michael Keefer writes:

Marlowe's Barabas (whose only offense, beyond an arrogant narcissism, has been the greed that motivates him to enclose "Infinite riches in a little room") is similarly cheated by dishonest Christians, who after seizing his property in order to pay the tribute owing to the Turks, keep it even once they've decided to refuse the tribute. The play devolves into a sequence of farcical acts of revenge and cover-up, but the notion that Christians are ethically inferior to Jews remains in circulation: Barabas may outdo in malice the Christians who have robbed him, but he is scarcely their equal in hypocrisy. The Jew of Malta, in short, is antisemitic, but its antisemitism is, at least in part, a means of leveraging a satirical onslaught against Christian mores.

Both Barabas and Shylock further the stereotype of the conniving, greedy Jew, but in Marlowe's play, the Christians are not much better; and in Shakespeare, Shylock too is a victim of Antonio's antisemitism. When asked why he is so eager to enforce the contract against Antonio, Shylock says:

...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?

(III.1)

Even as they promulgate antisemitism, both plays also take a critical attitude toward it. The behavior of antisemitic Christians is not treated as justified by virtue of their Christianity or their antagonists' Judaism.

Furthermore, Marlowe's own beliefs demonstrate that writing an antisemitic play is no indication of devout Christianity. He is generally supposed to be an atheist. His sometime roommate Richard Baines, a double agent and former Catholic priest, accused him of being so in a celebrated note, written to and at the behest of one of the members of Queen Elizabeth's cabinet. The note says that with regard to atheistic views:

Marloe doth not only holde them himself, but almost into every company he cometh, perswadeth men to Atheisme, willinge them not to be afrayed of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers.

If Marlowe could write an antisemitic play while holding atheist views, then we cannot assume that by virtue of writing an antisemitic play, Shakespeare must have been Christian.

To sum up:

  • Devout Christianity is not a prerequisite for antisemitism.
  • The antisemitism of The Merchant of Venice is not entirely straightforward; the antisemitism of Christians itself also comes under some critical scrutiny in the play.
  • Marlowe's example shows that writing an antisemitic play could be compatible with any range of religious views up to and including atheism.

In short, the antisemitism of Shakespeare's play is no evidence for ascribing devoutly Christian beliefs to him.

  • Antisemitism isn't a prerequisite for devout Christianity either. – kristan Feb 10 '17 at 21:58

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