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William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare was an English playwright and poet. The Merchant of Venice (1596) has been claimed as the play in which Shakespeare found himself "in the fullest sense." As with other major comedies of his so-called second period, the main emphasis was to have been on the romantic plot. It is, however, Shylock and the bond story, originally intended as a comic subplot, which has proved to be the actual focus of interest down to the present day. Bassanio requests that his friend Antonio, a merchant, provide him with money for his expedition to Belmont. In order to raise the necessary sum, Antonio takes a loan from the Jewish usurer, Shylock. The latter, instead of demanding interest, suggests a "merry bond," according to which, if Antonio should default, Shylock would be entitled to a pound of flesh nearest to Antonio's heart. Not only does Antonio default but, when the day of payment comes, Shylock's daughter Jessica is found to have eloped with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio, taking with her a large part of her father's money. Embittered by this double blow – "My ducats and my daughter!" – Shylock demands the "penalty and forfeit" of the bond from Antonio. However, Portia, the Lady of Belmont, disguised as a lawyer, saves the situation, pointing out that the bond does not entitle Shylock to a single drop of blood. Antonio's life is saved, and Shylock himself becomes liable to the confiscation of his whole estate through having sought the life of a citizen of Venice. This penalty is "mercifully" reduced to half, but only on condition that he embraces Christianity.

The mainstream view is that Shylock is the type of the monstrous, bloodthirsty usurer of medieval legend. Gobbo, his comic servant, tells us that his master is "the very devil incarnation," and later, when Shylock appears, one of the characters remarks that the devil "comes in the likeness of a Jew." From time to time Shylock is "demythologized," especially in his famous speech, beginning "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" Many modern critics believe that Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock is much more ambiguous than was previously held, and must be contrasted with the two-dimensional portrayals of Jews in English drama up to that time. Shylock is seen as marking a stage in Shakespeare's evolution as a writer. The Merchant of Venice was probably written three or four years after Richard III, with its unquestionably evil protagonist, and paved the way for the more ambiguous depictions in Shakespeare's later works. Much about The Merchant of Venice poses as yet unanswerable questions: how and where did Shakespeare meet any Jews, since they were legally barred from living in England? Did he visit Venice, which the play describes with the apparent knowledge of an eyewitness? From what source did the name "Shylock," unknown in Jewish usage, derive?

It is generally believed that the trial and execution in 1594 of Queen Elizabeth's *Marrano physician, Rodrigo *Lopez, suggested some features of the Shylock story. This episode provoked a good deal of antisemitic feeling in England at the time.

In England, Edmund Kean's portrayal of Shylock in 1814 was notable for its tragic intensity, while Sir Henry Irving in 1879 acted the part in a radically idealized form, muting the evil qualities of Shylock. The play has often been translated into Hebrew and has been performed in Israel several times. The Merchant of Venice, and Shakespeare's views of Jews, have attracted a wide range of comment and analysis, which have certainly not diminished in recent years. Recent studies of these topics include Martin D. Yaffe, Shylock and the Jewish Question (1997), and James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (1997). For better or worse, Shylock probably remains the most famous depiction of a Jew in English literature.


L. Prager, in: Shakespeare Quarterly, 19:2 (Spring, 1968), 149–63, includes bibliography; Z. Zylbercweig, in: Ikkuf Almanakh 1967, ed. by N. Meisel (1967), 327–46; M.J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (19692), 70–85, index; G. Friedlander, Shakespeare and the Jew (1921); J.L. Cardozo, Contemporary Jew in the Elizabethan Drama (1925), 207–53; T. Lelyveld, Shylock on the Stage (1961), index; S.A. Tannenbaum, Shakspeare's The Merchant of Venice, a Concise Bibliography (1941); M. Roston (ed.), Ha-Olam ha-Shekspiri (1965); M. Halevy, in: Jewish Quarterly (Spring, 1966), 3–7; (Winter, 1966), 10–16; J. Bloch, in: JBA, 14 (1956/57), 23–31. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Berkowitz, Gained in Translation: Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (2002); D. Abend-David, "Scorned My Nation," A Comparison of Translations of the Merchant of Venice into German, Hebrew and Yiddish (2003); J. Gross, Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1992); J.M. Landau, Studies in the Arab Theater and Cinema (1958), index.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.