Hath not a Jew eyes?

The title is the start of a very famous speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Modern apologists for the play have focused on this speech as showing that Shakespeare, and, by inference, his audience in early-17th century England, knew that Jews were just as human as Christians. That didn’t stop him from demonizing Shylock, giving him what were considered at the time stereotypical traits.

Which is interesting, given that most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the England of the early 17th century would likely not have known any Jews — they’d been formally expelled by Edward I in 1290, an expulsion that wasn’t even informally lifted until the time of Oliver Cromwell, almost 40 years after the Bard’s death in 1616.

So it’s evident that the portrait Shylock was influenced by common prejudice at the time, or, perhaps, by common prejudice imported from the Continent, where Jews were treated, well, let’s just say, not well.

What brought this up was my coming upon a review by Rev. Colin Sedgwick, Lindsay Park Baptist Church, Kenton, Middlesex. Yes, Virginia, there are Baptists in England. The CofE hasn’t quite eliminated all of its competition, try mightily has they had in centuries past…

Rev. Sedgwick has a review of the play, with a view towards its anti-Semitism, that is well worth the time. It may be found here. His conclusion?

The fact is that, for all its gems, the play is seriously nasty – especially, for us, in the light of the Holocaust and the whole sorry tale of anti-Semitism.

That Christians behaved in an un-Christian manner towards Shylock is simply a reflection of the universal truth from Romans 3:23: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Very much including me, you, Shylock, his tormentors, and Will Shakespeare.


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