How would Shylock's resentment towards Antonio reflect the political position Jews held in Elizabethan society?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Belonging to no country, beginning in feudal times, Jews were not allowed to own property in the European countries in which they took residence. Therefore, they became merchants, peddlers, and money-lenders, often living in the port cities. Thus, because of their alien status and their non-Christian religion, Jews were regarded with suspicion.  Queen Elizabeth I, who had eliminated her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who had assassination attempts made upon Elizabeth after fleeing to England and being held prisoner for nearly two decades, promoted the Anglican Church as the official church of England. 

In Elizabethan England, therefore, Catholics and Jews alike had to be clandestine about their religious beliefs. (In fact, there is documentation that Shakespeare himself was a closet Catholic.) As foreigners and unbelievers, Jews were especially viewed with distrust and dislike.  Rumors began that they were Satan worshippers and had even been the cause Bubonic Plague. Jews were confined to ghettos built to contain them in certain areas of London, for instance.  Many English citizens, of course, remembered the perspectives of the Jews in the writings of Chaucer, whose one tale has a mother warn her child that the Jews eat children, and Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.

So, there is little dissimilarity between the perception of Jews in Elizabethan times from that of Antonio and the other citizens of Venice who feel that Shylock is an unconscionable, greedy and cruel infidel.  Shylock's resentment is expressed in his monologue,

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that. (3.1.58-68)

Shylock resents Antonio for his denigrating attitude toward him since Antonio has spat upon Shylock, treating him disgracefully in the Rialto, a public area of commercial exchange.

 

 

 

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