In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, why is Shylock called an unbeliever?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Act I, Scene III of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the character Shylock gives one of his impassioned speeches during which he criticizes those who daily ignore or verbally abuse him because of his faith, yet who come to him in times of financial need and then complain about being charged interest. In his comments directed towards Antonio and Bassanio, Shylock notes that he is frequently identified in particularly unflattering terms:

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

Shylock is called a "misbeliever," or nonbeliever, because he is Jewish, and a Jew living in a heavily Catholic environment, especially during the times in which Shakespeare's play takes place, would be regularly subjected to anti-Semitic vituperation, the least offensive of which would include "nonbeliever," meaning one who rejects the notion that Jesus was the son of God. That is why, subsequent to the above comment by Shylock, Bassanio, the more stridently hostile towards the Jewish moneylender, makes the following comment following Shylock's departure:

Hie thee, gentle Jew.

Exit Shylock

The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.

While anti-Semitism predated the birth of Jesus, it was the rejection by most Jews of the notion that Jesus was the son of God that precipitated the growth of and persistence throughout modern history of hostility towards Jews. 

Shakespeare's play has been subjected over the years to charges of anti-Semitism, and one could easily conclude that such an interpretation is at least somewhat valid. What is equally valid, however, is the depiction in The Merchant of Venice of hostility towards Jews. That Shylock is a moneylender served to perpetuate the stereotype about Jews and money that has proven lethal in many instances around the world. Money-lending was, in fact, one of the few "professions" in which Jews were permitted to work, a restriction that served to further perpetuate the most vile of stereotypes regarding Jewish people, and the hostility shown towards Shylock had its genesis in the notion of this unattractive character being a 'nonbeliever.'

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