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 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. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.