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In William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice,” the character of Shylock is noticeably unattractive relative to the other main characters in the play. A Jewish moneylender, his name has become synonymous with illicit loansharking, and the character has been derided as an anti-Semitic caricature. That being said, Shakespeare’s Jewish character – and, it should be remembered for the present context that practicing Jewish people do not consume pork – is a more complex individual than generally perceived, although the charge of anti-Semitism in the portrayal is valid. He is, in many ways, a reflection of the manner in which he is treated by gentiles, and the product of a history of discrimination and repression. He is bitter and unforgiving in the matter of Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia’s affections and Antonio’s efforts at aiding his friend in his pursuit. Consequently, when he and Bassanio enter the public tavern or place of dining, the following exchange occurs:
Bassanio: If it please you to dine with us.
Shylock: Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habituation which your prophet the Nazarie conjured the devil into. I will buy with you, see with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”
Shylock’s response to Bassanio’s invitation to dine with him and Antonio, who now arrives, is one of anger and resentment:
Bassanio: This is Signior Antonio.
Shylock: [Aside] How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian, But more for that in low simplicity, he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance . . . Cursed be my tribe, If I forgive him!”
In many cultures, there is a distinct line between cooperating or collaborating with an individual on the one hand, and dining or drinking with that individual on the other. The former represents a formal arrangement, the latter a more informal and personal occasion. To “break bread” with another is considered in this particular literary context a Christian Biblical notion that is anathema to one as despised for his religion as Shylock. He refuses to dine with Bassanio and Antonio because they are an enemy with whom he will not break bread.
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