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Although Jews had been fairly well expelled from England in 1290, Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's physician, was drawn and quartered and hanged after having been framed by the Earl of Essex who had him accused of a plot to poison the queen. This murder, critic Harold Bloom contends, was a "shadowy provocation" to a revival of Christopher Marlow's The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Still, the Elizabethans long held a repugnance for usury. For, in London, according to Professeur John W. Draper, the cruelty of the usurer's was notorious.
Thus, the theme of genteelness and mercy vs. usury and its cruelty is the driving force of this play. In this ironical romantic comedy in which Shylock plays the comic villain, the pun on the word gentile presents itself on several occasions. Here are a couple examples:
Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.
If e'er the Jew her father come to heaven,
It will be for his gentle daughter's sake.
[II. ii. 33-4]
(Jessica is also called "gentle" in 1. 19)
The Duke urges Shylock to be merciful; asking him not only to
loose the forfeiture,
But, touch'd with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal ...
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew.
And, like others of his plays, Shakespeare writes in The Merchant of Venice a parallel to Marlowe's motif of strategic cunning as counter to Christian values. However, Shakespeare's protrayal is more comedic and ironic.
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