Written in 1596, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice teems with anti semitism. Interestingly, however, during Shakespeare’s life time there were no Jews in England—they had been expelled from the country in 1290 and were not permitted to resettle until 1665. Why, then, would Shakespeare write one of the Merchant of Venice’s most pivotal characters as a Jew? And what was the religious and political climate that inspired him to create Shylock as such an unsavory character?
Given that Jews were absent from England while Shakespeare was writing the Merchant of Venice, it is unlikely that he derived the disposition of Shylock from any first hand interactions with Jews. Instead he sourced this character in prevailing misconceptions of Jews which bourgeoned throughout England without any real Jews to refute them by example of ordinary humanity. One such fallacy that is showcased through Shylock is the idea of Jews committing deicide and another is of their being miserly usurers.
The idea of Jews committing deicide, or the ritual murder of Christian children, first came to England in 1144 with the murder of William of Norwich. Without any due reason, the Jews of Norwich were immediately accused of the crime. Although this claim, also known as the Blood Libel, was rationally unfounded, its premise was that the Jews once killed a Christian (Jesus) and that they were simply reverting back to a biblical practice. Shakespeare propagates this demonic image of Jewish thirst for blood by having Shylock attempt to collect a pound of Antonio’s flesh as recompense for Bassanio’s debt.
This interpretation of Jewish villainy ties into the other mentioned above—that of usury. Although the Jewish community was faulted for the practice of lending money at interest, the Jews were actually brought to England with the Normans in 1066 for the express purpose of financing the needs of court, aristocracy, and clergy. Furthermore, money lending was a business into which Jews had been indirectly forced through laws banning them from guilds that would have allowed them to provide other goods and services. However, regardless of the necessity of money lending to the capitalist practices of England and Venice, Jews were nonetheless equated to the Devil due to a papal bull of 1257 which identified usury with heresy. The effects of this identification were two fold: not only was usury then opposed to Christianity, but it was also opposed to the government, a Christian state.
Shylock, who embodies these two popular ideas of Jews, becomes a kind of demonic figure. To assert this characterization visually, he was often dressed in red or with red hair. This color selection, seen in both images, helps draw yet another a parallel between him (or Jews at large) and the Devil. Interestingly, even as Shylock has shifted into a more pitiable, sympathetic character in modern renditions of the Merchant of Venice, his dress is still relegated to red: as can be seen in 2004 film where he sports a red cap. It seems that no matter how much of a victim Shylock is portrayed to be, however, he will always remain an antagonistic character whose primary purpose is to provide a point of reference to better highlight the kindness, love, or compassion demonstrated by the play’s other characters.