Few people in Shakespeare’s audiences would ever have met a practicing Jew. England’s Jewish population had been expelled in 1290, more than two hundred years before Shakespeare’s birth, and practicing Jews would not be permitted to enter the country until after Shakespeare’s death, in 1660. Elizabethan London was home to a small number of Jewish converts to Christianity, and despite their conversion, these Jewish people remained subject to anti-Semitic prejudice. In 1594 the royal physician, Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Christian of Jewish ancestry, was found guilty of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth. When he spoke to the crowd who had gathered to watch his execution, Lopez insisted that he “loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ.” The crowd laughed at him. In their minds, Lopez’s choice of words only proved that he didn’t love Jesus Christ—in other words that he continued to secretly practice Judaism.
Anti-Semitic prejudice ran very deep in Elizabethan England. Conventional wisdom held that Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were delaying the salvation of mankind. In the medieval period many Christians believed that Jews killed Christian children as part of their religious practice, and this rumor persisted during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Jews were historically associated with usury, the practice of lending money at interest, largely because in many parts of Europe, Christians were legally forbidden from collecting interest. Nevertheless, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, England’s long-held anti-Semitic prejudices began to soften. Because Jews were barred from England, most moneylenders in Shakespeare’s London were Christian foreigners, particularly Italians. A play called The Three Ladies of London, which was very popular in the 1580s and 90s, pitted a moral and sympathetic Jewish merchant against a wicked and scheming Italian merchant. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is notorious for its anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, but the play is also at pains to show that cruelty and greed are traits which can be found in Jews and Christians alike. Shylock’s cruelty is also shown to be at least in part a response to his experience of anti-Semitic discrimination and abuse.