Shylock from Merchant of Venice

Categories: Merchant of Venice

One of the most unforgettable characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays is Shylock from Merchant of Venice. The question at hand is who Shylock really is and where Shakespeare got the idea to write this character. While many critics like to argue that Shakespeare did not write an anti-sematic piece, it is undeniable, looking at the text, that he indeed painted a greedy and money-hungry usurer. However, Jews had been expelled in England for over three hundred years by the time Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice; meaning that he would have most likely never been in contact with a publicly practicing Jew in his life (Bronstein 5).

So where did this evil and harsh depiction of the Jew come from? Shakespeare’s is justified in his portrayal of Shylock because it did not come from first-hand accounts, but from stories, history, and societies attitudes toward the Jewish community.

In order to understand where the stereotypes and hatred of Jews derived from, one must look at the factual history of the Jewish community in England.

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The life of England’s Jewish population before the Expulsion of 1290 is difficult to pin point accurately. The evidence provided is one-sided as it was written by England’s government, rather than from the Jewish population directly (Huscroft 63). It is hard to find information on Jew’s during this time outside of money-lending and massacre. Even with the evidence and texts provided, researchers can attain some valuable information. Before their expulsion in 1290, there was a relatively small population of Jewish citizens.

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It is estimated by “contemporary chroniclers” that there were around 17,000 Jews in England before the Expulsion, which is extremely small compared to the estimated 2-4 million people living in England during this time (64).

However, modern researchers have estimated that the population was significantly smaller. These researchers believe that there was only “2,500-3,000 Jews in England in 1290” (64). The population of Jews did not exist in one singular spot; rather they were spread out among the twenty major settlements in the kingdom. With an already small population, the number of Jews living in one place would only contain around 200 members (65-66). Although Christians and Jews still lived in the same settlements and interacted with each other, the Jewish community formed a discrete community from their Christian neighbors. The Jews “ate different food, spoke different languages, had their own customs and observances and educated their children apart from the Christian majority” (70). Although they could have lived anywhere they chose, they still had a tendency to live next to each other. These small communities were known as Jewries, where the synagogue was the center of life. Some of these synagogues were discreet to avoid attacks and conflict from others (70).

Jews in England set themselves up as traders and had come to focus on moneylending. Usury was deemed a sin by the Christian Church and “was regarded as a form of heresy and ‘the usurer was ranked with witched, robbers, fornicators, and adulterers’” (Huscroft 76). Even though money-lending had such views as these, it was still tolerated due to its necessity in commercialism. Though some Christians even dabbled in usury, Jewish citizens dominated the money-lending market in England. To avoid labeled as a usurer, Christians who borrowed money from Jewish usurers used sneaky tactics to avoid this claim. For instance, the interest of a loan would be added to the initial amount lent (76).

Contemporary depictions of the medieval Jew showed them “wearing distinctive headgear, in particular the pointed pileum cornutum hat, and as having hook noses, beards and curly forelocks” (Huscroft 68). The real physical differences between the Jewish and Christian populations cannot be trusted as accurate as many of these depictions were simply caricatures. There was a popular belief that Jews had a distinctive smell that associated them with the devil, brimstone and sulfur. Along with the stereotypes and untrustworthy depictions of the Jewish population, there were many attacks on the Jewish community.

The royal government tried to enforce Jews to wear a tabula, an identification badge, in order to distinguish them from Christians. There were many attempts from the Church and England’s government to ban Christian women from working in Jewish households as nurses and wet nurses for Jewish children. Many Christian authorities believed that being around Jewish people for too long would make Christians stray away from their own religious path. There was one instance in 1286 where the bishop was angered because Christians were invited to a Jewish wedding. He required that “all who had attended the celebration should receive absolution within eight days or face excommunication” (68).

After King Henry III’s coronation in October of 1216, the new government considered the Jews place in England. There were many decrees that were issued to “restrict Jewish lending, to compel Jews to pay tithes and other ecclesiastical dues and to limit contact between Jews and Gentiles” (Huscroft 83). There was an order by the government that all Jews must wear a badge in order to distinguish them from the rest of the population (84). Even though most of the decrees were not enforced, there was not much of a Jewish population left to affect. Many Jews left England before Henry III’s reign due to certain events and the civil war (85). Around 1240, the attitude toward Jews hardened and became more forceful. The government began confiscating Jewish goods and outlawing Jewish usury in total (86).

King Henry even created the Domus Conversorum (“House of Converts) in London to encourage and witness Jews convert to Christianity. Jews were coerced to convert due to high taxes placed on the Jewish community and probably did so to avoid persecution (87). Most likely due to influences of France, Henry III ordered that Jews could no longer live in England unless they were doing the king’s service. From this point forward, the badge-wearing decree was enforced more heavily. No more synagogues were built in England and services conducted were done quietly so that no one outside could hear them (96). Later in his reign, more restrictions were placed on Jews including one that prohibited Jews from owning land outside of the homes in which they were already established (110).

Although King Henry III’s reign deemed hardships for the Jewish population, it was King Edward I’s reign that sealed their fate. One of the events that might have led to Edward’s hatred of Jews happened on Ascension Day of May 1268. The Jewish population was angry that a Christian festival was paraded through their community, so they stole one of the crosses from the bearer and broke it (Huscroft 114). Edward’s actions towards the Jews during his reign furthered Henry III’s decrees. The Statute of the Jewry passed during his reign was one of the most radical of the thirteenth century (118). This legislation tool away “royal assistance in recovering usurious loans, and, if any Jew continued to lend at interest, the king reserved the right” to punish him in any way he sees fit (118).

Also, any Jew over the age of twelve must pay an annual three pence tax on Easter to the King (119). There were also rules put in place in order to restrict Jewish usury professions. However, these new rules enacted did not try to rid the Jewish population completely; rather it urged them to find other profession outside of money-lending (120). These new rules did not change anything; Jews still carried out their usury like nothing happened (121). There were many executions of Jews during this time of the Jewish population. Accusations of coin-clipping and ritual murder spread that led to the deaths (128-130). King Edward I took further action and got a census of the Jews living in England, making sure they were wearing their designated markers, and began to punish those who were blasphemous against Christianity (131).

By the late 1280s, there was not much of Jewish population left in England. By then, they had endured many trials and accusations. Many have witnessed the execution of their loved ones. For the few still left in England, there was not much reason to fight and stay (Huscroft 142-143). In June of 1290, Edward I ordered police to seal the Jewish settlements (150). Finally, the Edict of Expulsion of 1290 was decreed in June 1290. All Jews had three months to leave England, the last day being the first of November, All Saints’ Day (155). Edward I justified his actions by claiming they were still practicing usury and not adhering to the Statute of Jewry (152). All land owned by Jews were given to the King (156). At last, England was now rid of its Jewish population. Even though no Jew was living in England past 1290, the attitudes and stereotypes inflicted on them remained.

Shakespeare used these stereotypes and attitudes to create his own Jew, Shylock. Looking on the surface of his character, no one “can obscure the fact that Shylock is a greedy usurer who dreams of moneybags and is implacable in his demands for Antonio’s pound of flesh” (Bronstein 4). When his daughter Jessica runs away with his jewels, he seems much more concerned with his jewels than her safety: “two / thousand ducats in that and other precious, precious jewels! / I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in / her ear!” (Merchant of Venice III.i.71-74). Even in the courtroom Shylock is offered three times the original amount of Antonio’s debt: “Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” (IV.i.225). However, Shylock still refuses to take the generous offer so that he may cut the pound of flesh from Antonio’s chest. These stereotypes lived on English society, but also in stories and literature for hundreds of years.

One of the most prominent stories that captured the attitudes of Jews is the story of Hugh of Lincoln. It was the summer of 1255 when “an eight-year-old boy named Hugh, the son of a widow, Beatrice, in the city of Lincoln, fell into a cesspool attached to the house of a member of the Jewish community” (Heng S54). The body of the boy decayed for twenty-six days until it finally rose to the surface where it was found. The community of Jews who were gathered there for an important wedding panicked and threw the body down a well away from their houses as the “ritual murder libel” could have been threatened against them. By this time in medieval history, stories of ritual murder were well established as a part of English society. These fictitious stories were used as weapons against Jews to entice violent acts from the Christian community (S58). In the libel, it is told that Jews capture young Christian boys “in order to torture, mutilate, and slaughter them in purposeful reenactments of the killing of Christ” (S55). While the Hugh of Lincoln story is not the only story of ritual murder, this particular story lived on for more than six centuries. The story is “cited, elaborated, and transformed in drama and ballads, statuary and shrines, preaching and pilgrimage, books of private devotional prayer, miracle tales” and much more (S59).

An Anglo-French ballad written shortly after the death of Hugh of Lincoln is a graphic piece of literature whose strong imagery entices hatred of the Jewish community. The ballad is written as a narrative of Hugh of Lincoln’s death. The Jews of Lincoln are the central point of the ballad, but it summons all of England’s Jews to share the guilt of what happened to this boy. In the ballad, there is a striking resemblance of how Hugh’s is murder to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Hugh is stripped naked and is tied with a cord. He cries as he is bound to a cross and nails are driven into his hands and feet. A knife is then driven into his chest, continued by his heart being cut in two. The imagery and language is moving to the Christian audiences who feel the agonizing pain the child is. The ballad reminds the audiences of who Jews really are: vile creatures who kill children and killed God himself on a cross (S62-S64).

A Marian miracle story, “The Christian Child Slain by Jews,” uses the Jew as a villain and evoking the “theme of Jewish child-murder” (Heng S71). The story tells of a poor Christian child who uses his God-given voice to support his family. The story focuses greatly on the boy’s voice which is exceptionally beautiful, drawing comparison to a voice of an angel. A Jew who spots this young man finds a way to lure him into his home. He then slits the throat of the child and dumps his body “into the proverbial latrine” (S72). The text focuses so much on the boys’ voice that it echoes throughout the entire work, even during his murder, uniting Christian readers (S70-S73).

Shakespeare’s audience would have been very familiar with the Hugh of Lincoln story and the writings that retell the bloody tale. In establishing the terms for the loan, Shylock’s rate of interest would not have come as such a surprise to the Elizabethan audience:

Go with me to a notary; seal me there

Your single bond and, in a merry sport,

If you repay me not, on such a day

In such a place, such sum or sums as are

Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me. (Merchant of Venice I.iii.137-144).

This proposition reinforces the stereotype of the greedy usurer Jew and moves to collect as much as possible. This interest rate would also remind play attendees of the ritual blood libel stories such as Hugh of Lincoln. This aspect of Shylock would make the audience despise him even more now that they are reminded of the graphic and emotional tales of Christian bloodshed.

The Prioress’s Tale from Chaucer also evokes the Hugh of Lincoln story. However, instead of remembrance of Jews’ evil tendencies at the end of the tale, it invokes the Blessed Mary. The story tells of a boy whose mother has always taught him to admire and venerate the Virgin Mary. He hears and learns the “Virgin’s hymn of praise” (Heng S66). He sings this song repeatedly which catches the attention of both Jews and Satan. After the boy’s throat is slit, Mary enables the boy to sing so his body is found and the Jews responsible are executed. It is a story the venerates the Virgin Mary and shows her patronage. Thus, it structures the idea that Christians are a “protected and watched-over population” (S66). Through this structure, it separates people by religion and defines both, Christian and Jews. The tale categorizes Christians as those who come from Christian blood and not simply by converting, labeling them as a blood-race. The Jews on the other hand are categorized as being in relation to Satan, the enemy of Christians. Several manuscripts of the Prioress Tale Satan refer to Jewish law as “oure laws,” confirming that Jews are people of Satan’s law and not God’s (S65-S67).

Mirroring Chaucer’s Prioress Tale, Shakespeare separates Christian and Jews as a blood race, with the Christians being a watched over and protected people and Jews an infernal race. In one of the final scenes of Merchant of Venice, the audience see’s Shylock, the evil Jew, coming very close to getting his pound of flesh from Antonio. Although just as he is about to cut the flesh from Antonio’s chest, Portia (in disguise as a lawyer’s apprentice) points out a flow in his contract that does entitle him to any blood of Antonio’s, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (IV.i.304). Shylock goes on to losing all of his assets, thus mirroring the structure of Chaucer’s Prioress Tale of Christians being protected.

Shakespeare would have certainly been familiar with the Corpus Christi plays of this time, thus deriving more of society’s view toward Jews. They are the ones “who are depicted as responsible for the violent humiliation and crucifixion of Christ” (Archer 47). This depiction left the audience with conception that not only the Jews of that time were guilty of killing Christ, but they are forever in the state of committing this act (47). Some passion plays of the medieval period even depicted the Jew as an “incarnation of the devil himself” (Bronstein 6).

Shylock was referred to a plethora of times as the devil himself by many characters throughout Merchant of Venice. The first of which is during a conversation between Shylock and Antonio. Shylock had recited the biblical story of Jacob and Laban, to which Antonio responds, “Mark you this, Bassanio: / The devil himself can cite scripture for his purpose. / An evil soul producing holy witness” (I.iii.91-93). Even the clown Lancelet recognizes his master, Shylock, as the devil. When contemplating running away from his master, in a rather comical scene, Lancelot is sure of Shylock being an incarnate of the devil himself, “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation” (II.ii.23-24).

These depictions and stereotypes that were placed on Jews would have been well known amongst the Elizabethan audience and to Shakespeare himself. While the play offers only a fraction of the interactions between Shylock and Antonio, Shylock laments on how Antonio has treated him: “You call me “misbeliever,” “cut-throat dog,” / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine,” (I.ii.105-106). Shylocks recount of the incidents of how Antonio has treated him evidences Shakespeare’s knowledge of how Christians indeed treated Jews.

Due to the lack of real-life Jews living in England, Shakespeare had to rely on history, stories, and tales for his idea of the Jew. Just as in history, where Jews in England were majority tradesmen and moneylenders, Shylock was depicted as one of the sinful usurers. His greedy personality and selfish attitudes came to no shock to the Elizabethan audience members, as these stereotypes have lived on in society. Shakespeare turned to stories and literature to focus in on how to structure this character. Tales such as Hugh of Lincoln and the common Corpus Christi plays depicted Jews as the devil incarnated and hungry for Christian blood. Shakespeare used sources as these to develop Shylock’s actions and how characters described him. Shakespeare even mirrored Chaucer’s Prioress Tale in contrasting Christians as a protected blood-race and Jews as doomed infernal population. Without these foundations, Shakespeare would have never been able to create Shylock’s unforgettable role in Merchant of Venice.

Cite this page

Shylock from Merchant of Venice. (2022, Jan 24). Retrieved from

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