Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shylock and depictions of Jews

Entering a city. From the Roxburghe Ballads. University of Victoria Library.

Shylock presents a difficult problem for many modern audiences and critics. Is he a stereotypical "Jew," similar to Marlowe's villain Barrabas from The Jew of Malta, or is he a sympathetic figure intended to criticize the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's time? Complicating this question is the modern tendency to want to elevate Shakespeare above the prejudices of his time.

We can say with certainty that Shylock is not without motivation. His treatment at the hands of the Christian merchants is decidedly un-Christian: they spit on him, call him a dog, and finally take half his money and force him to convert. All this in spite of Shylock's famous plea for sympathy:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affectations, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? (3.1.50-4)