When Shylock refers to his “ancient grudge” with Antonio, he alludes to not just the longstanding personal animosity between the two men, but to the long history of anti-Semitic stories and attitudes that shaped the world of the play. The gruesomeness of Shylock’s demand for “a pound of flesh” might shock a modern audience, but tales of bloodthirsty Jews harming Christian bodies were common in medieval and renaissance Europe. Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audiences probably would have known the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a child whose death was falsely attributed to a Jewish community as “ritual murder” in the thirteenth century, and similar myths of Jewish sacrifices of Christian children. Likewise, the abuse that Shylock endures because of his profession is consistent with longstanding European attitudes toward Jewish moneylenders. In medieval and renaissance Europe, moneylending was one of the few professions available to Jews, who were barred from practicing many other trades. But the fact that they charged interest on their loans caused them to be further reviled by Christians who believed usury, or moneylending with interest, was sinful.
In addition to believing derogatory myths about the Jewish religion, most members of Shakespeare’s audience would have never met a Jew in real life. Elizabethan England was a homogenous society; in 1290, King Edward I had expelled all Jews from England or forced them to convert. Additionally, the 1594 trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I’s royal physician, led to a surge of anti-Semitism in England in the late sixteenth century. Lopez, a convert to the Church of England of Jewish descent, was accused of conspiring to poison the queen, convicted of high treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. Scholars estimate that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice between 1596 and 1599, so we can assume that this event would still have been a part of the collective social consciousness when Shakespeare wrote the play. Furthermore, in Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 play The Jew of Malta, which critics consider a significant source for The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish character of Barabas is a murderous villain who poisons every character who stands in his way.
In the centuries since Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, the way different productions have handled the text’s problematic attitude toward Jewish people tells the story of their own society’s grappling with anti-Semitism. In the first productions of the play, comedians portrayed Shylock as either a clown or a monster, but in the nineteenth century, Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean won great acclaim for playing Shylock sympathetically. Henry Irving’s 1879 production of the play omitted some of the most anti-Semitic lines and added a scene at the end where Shylock finds his house deserted, emphasizing the tragedy in the comedy. A 2004 film establishes Shylock as a representative of a suffering race by opening with shots of Venice’s Jewish ghetto and descriptions of the abuse of Jews in Venice. Today, the play’s controversial history stands as part of its value; like all good literature, it serves as lens through which we can understand our past and a mirror in which we can examine our own, imperfect present.