The Merchant of Venice: Pretty historic and ugly antisemitic

Originally billed as a comedy, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is now better known for drama. And drama there is aplenty. Antonio, an antisemitic merchant, takes a loan from the Jew Shylock so his friend Bassanio can court an heiress Portia. When Antonio defaults, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. Portia, now the wife of Bassanio, crossdresses as a lawyer to save Antonio. With glimpses into the Venetian Ghetto where it’s set, the play is also full of Jew-hatred du jour.

Set in the streets of Renaissance Venice (with a few scenes in a fictional Italian town called Belmont), The Merchant of Venice paints the picture of one of the wealthiest cities in Europe – cosmopolitan and a hotspot for trade. Jewish merchants and bankers are rightly seen as vital to the flow of commodities. Although 16th-century Venice is more open and tolerant than Elizabethan England, Jews in Venice are confined to a ghetto even though Shakespeare doesn’t ever acknowledge this in the play.

In Venice, the scenes alternate between the streets and Shylock’s house which could only have been in the Venetian Ghetto. Established by decree of Doge Leonardo Loredan in 1516, the Ghetto was one of the first where Jews were segregated because of religious identity. This was despite the fact that Venice had laws in place to protect non-Venetian traders who supported the city’s economy. The word ghetto also originated here as a corrupted form of geto – a foundry in the Venetian dialect.

In the 16th century, the Venetian Ghetto had a sizeable Jewish population which was despised by the Christian community. This apparently never stopped Christians from seeking out Jewish money lenders as is the case in this play. The Merchant of Venice is partly about the relationship between Jews and Christians in Renaissance Venice and the clash between the two boils over in the legal showdown over whether or not Shylock should be able to extract his pound of flesh from Antonio.

As the literary critic Harold Bloom observed: “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly antisemitic work.” Shylock, the Jewish villain of the play, is often referred to as the devil and that’s only when his opponents are being nice. His insistence on collecting a pound of Antonio’s flesh also evokes the ugly tropes of Jews killing Jesus and Christians for blood to use in savage rituals…