Shakespeare Making “Shylock”

On Tuesday September 16, 2014 Vice President Joe Biden referred to people who make loans toshylock members of the military and take advantage of them while they are over seas, as “shylocks“. Today, Time Magazine says,  “shylock” is considered an antisemitic slur. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a jewish merchant and money lender, who is
portrayed as an antagonistic figure. Even some images of this character, as seen here, portray him as an antagonistic moneylender and loan shark.

But how did  this prejudice meaning of the term “shylock” come to be?

Beginning in 1516, jews were allowed to live in Venice, but were confined to a specific area
called the Ghetto Nuova. Also, they were only allowed to practice a number of professions including running pawn shops and acting as money lenders. Furthermore, jews were forces to wear distinguishing cloths in public, so that everyone could tell who was a jew. However, in the circum17th century jews in Venice became a wealthy and important part of the merchant class, yet resentment and prejudice towards jews by christians remained. Jewish money lenders, such as the character shylock in The Merchant of Venice, were viewed as charging christians unfair interest rates, and were commonly harassed by christians.

This provides the historical background for how the term “shylock” and the image of the Shakespearian character Shylock became so antagonistic and synonymous.

Also, Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice helped to establish the term ,and the negative image of a jewish money lender, that it can represent. Shakespeare helps to establish this unfortunate definition of the term “shylock“. The word “jew” has negative connotations in this play drawn from the historical context relevant in Shakespeare’s time, meaning an extortionist, or an inferior creature like a dog. For instance Solanio states:

I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets (II.8.12-14).

Shakespeare uses the names “Jew” and “Shylock” interchangeably throughout The Merchant of Venice”. In fact the word “Jew” is used 58 times in the play, not counting variants of the term. Yet, the character Shylock is called my name only 17 times throughout the entire literary work, on all other occasions in the play he is simply referred to as “Jew” or “the Jew“. In this way Shakespeare helped perpetuate the antisemitic meanings of  the term “shylock” drawn from the historical negative connotations associated with the term  in The Merchant of Venice.

Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary a derogatory meaning of the noun form of “jew” is “a name of opprobrium, applied to a grasping or extortionate person“. Similarly, the noun form of the term “shylock” can mean an extortionate person, or an derogatory term for a money lender. This shows that Shakespeare contributed to the the term “shylock” becoming a derogatory and antisemitic slur. The term”shylock” dose not have a negative or antisemitic meaning in and of itself within The Merchant of Venice. However, Shylock is the villain in this play who is portrayed as being an extortionist; in accordance to the historical christian views of Venetian jews described above. Then, with Shakespeare’s continual references to this antagonistic figure as “Jew” or “the Jew”, the term “shylock” has coms to represent the derogatory connotations of an extortionist or loan shark, for some.