Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta

Elizabethan England produced two great plays involving Jewish protagonists, and for most of the past hundred years or so it has been generally believed that one of these plays is essentially defensible although highly problematic while the other is simply and crudely anti-Semitic. The Merchant of Venice remains controversial, and with good reason, but it is generally defended and is and can be performed in the English-speaking world without much protest. The Jew of Malta, Marlowe’s earlier masterpiece, on the other hand is, in fact, not controversial: it is generally regarded as crudely anti-Semitic and therefore almost unperformable. There are occasional public readings of the play, and there have been one or two productions in London and New York, but its reputation as an anti-Semitic rant has rendered it pretty well outside the scope of general theatrical performance and even undergraduate university courses.

I think the general opinion has it precisely backwards: the Merchant of Venice is, in fact, an anti-Semitic text, albeit attenuated in many important ways and indeed defensible, whereas the Jew of Malta is, I think, not an anti-Semitic text at all. This is going to require some explaining, but it’s an important point especially to someone like me who spends a good deal of time thinking about the problems of defamation such as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

To begin with the Merchant of Venice, for most of the history of the reception of the play, Shylock has been seen as fundamentally an unsympathetic character if not a villain. He is also often seen as a caricature of a grasping, vicious and resentful Jew. The debate is not about whether or not Shylock is bad, but really is about whether Shylock is bad because he is a bad Jew or bad because he is simply a Jew. The play establishes quite clearly that he and his community are badly treated in Venice and subject to vicious discrimination, so it could be argued that he came by his rage honestly. It is also argued that at least two other Jewish characters in the play, Tubal and Shylock’s own daughter Jessica, are not cast in a bad light, suggesting that Shylock’s malice is personal and particular rather than communal or sectarian. However, Tubal’s role is exceedingly small and Jessica converts to Christianity and renounces Judaism while stealing Shylock’s money, so this case is rather weak.

A stronger argument lies in Shylock’s famous defenses of his positions. One of Shakespeare’s greatest qualities is that all his characters have their turn to speak and almost everyone explains themselves (except, of course, Iago, who offers multiple unconvincing explanations and ultimately becomes an impossible cipher — more on this in the near future). Shylock therefore has every opportunity to express his undoubtedly well-founded grievances, give his famous speech about the equal humanity of Jews with Christians, and justify his quest for vengeance on the grounds that Christian revenge is typical and that therefore Jewish revenge cannot be faulted.

This means, of course, that the play can be performed in a way that emphasizes Shylock’s humanity, justified grievances and the rationale for his behavior. And, nowadays, it is almost always performed that way. However, I think there are some fundamental qualities to the play that make it inescapably anti-Semitic as a text, which is not to say it shouldn’t be performed, read or enjoyed, but that we should not deify Shakespeare to the point that we fail to see the incorporation of genuine negative stereotypes and religious, ethnic and cultural bigotry in one of his most famous plays.

First of all, the underlying logic of the play, and especially the question of the bond and the pound of flesh, appears to be rooted in the contrast between what are supposedly rigid, inflexible, dogmatic and draconian Jewish ethics versus Christian mercy and forgiveness. The citizenry of Venice and its political leadership all repeatedly implore Shylock to show forgiveness and be merciful, implicitly as a Christian would, even though the law would appear to allow him to extract a bloody and fatal repayment of his loan. Shylock’s insistence on the letter of the law, on inflexible and legalistic justice, and on violent revenge as a form of justice are rooted in medieval and Renaissance Christian concepts of Judaism as a legalistic religion that emphasizes unjust forms of “justice” according to an outmoded and indefensible Talmudic law in contrast to the supposed Christian emphasis on mercy and forgiveness. For the Jew in the Merchant of Venice to be depicted as unmerciful, inflexible and literalistic in his legalism is, in fact, deeply rooted in Christian religious polemics against Jewish beliefs and practices. It is the old, flawed covenant that Christ repealed continuing to unjustifiably insist on its continued relevance even though it has been superseded by a superior religious and moral sensibility that supposedly replaces an emphasis on justice with an emphasis on mercy.

Of course, the Christians of Venice are so superior to Shylock that in the end his effort to exploit legal literalism is his comeuppance since his bond called for a pound of flesh but not a drop of blood. In other words, when their efforts to appeal to Christian mercy fall on deaf Jewish ears, their own legal literalism and dexterity can outmatch the Jewish one. The horrifying ritual humiliation of Shylock in the trial scene is not simply the debasement of a bad individual, it is a theatrical performance of Christian religious antagonism against not only Jews but Judaism as it was stereotypically perceived during most of the past millennium. The message is: the Jews, who wrongly seek to live by the letter of the old law ignoring the new covenant of mercy instituted by Christ, will have their comeuppance through the very letter of the law; that even their own most cherished values will undo them in the face of Christian virtue and determination.

Of course, many performances have demonstrated that it is possible to downplay this aspect of the Merchant to the point that many people fail to see it or that it is not reflected in a given production. Indeed, Shylock has been sympathetically performed since Edmund Kean’s legendary performance in the early 19th century. However, in the text as it exists I fear it is unmistakable. Shakespeare accords Shylock his full humanity and makes his personal distaste for racism quite apparent. But, he also participates enthusiastically in the assertion and representation of the superiority of Christian values and culture over Jewish ones, and I think it is impossible to fail to recognize this clearly in the Merchant. Therefore, while it is certainly a great work of art and an important humanist document that includes a great deal of antiracist sentiment, it seems impossible to me not to conclude that the Merchant of Venice does in fact also reflect anti-Semitism based on religious bigotry.

The Jew of Malta has acquired a perfectly dreadful reputation for anti-Semitism during the same period of time in which enormous efforts have been expended to recuperate the Merchant of Venice from the same charge. But I think the general opinion has it exactly backwards: Marlowe’s play is fundamentally not anti-Semitic, whereas Shakespeare’s unfortunately is. The Jew of Malta is generally seen as anti-Semitic because even more than Shylock, Barabas is a stereotype of the wealthy, grasping, unscrupulous, avaricious Jew. He also despises Christians and is introduced as a follower of Machiavelli, the synonym of amoral ruthlessness in Elizabethan England. He is also responsible for and enthusiastic about numerous murders, especially when committed against Christians. It has been argued that the abuses by various authorities against Barabas turn him into the anti-Semitic stereotype as the play unfolds, but I find this unconvincing. From the outset, Barabas is a thoroughly villainous character with no redeeming features at all. Because of this, he is often contrasted with Shylock who has many redeeming features and whose rage is much more carefully explored with typical Shakespearean subtlety and depth.

I think the reputation of the Jew of Malta as an anti-Semitic play rests on the absolutely immoral and stereotypically evil character of Barabas and the contrast with the Merchant of Venice and its more nuanced portrayal of Shylock who can be and now usually is portrayed sympathetically. No such sympathetic performance of Barabas is conceivable. However, the key to the Jew of Malta is that none of the other characters are any better — indeed, all of them prove at least as bad if not worse than Barabas himself. Ithamore, a Turkish Muslim slave purchased by Barabas, proves more vicious, murderous and immoral than his master, although also much less intelligent. The continuously invading Turks have a master plan to turn the entire Maltese population into galley slaves. As for the Christians in the play, I would argue that at every stage they outdo both the Jews and the Muslims in avarice, hypocrisy, violence and sheer unmitigated badness. Monks and nuns are depicted as engaging in unrelenting orgies of sexual depravity. Two friars behave in the most outrageous manner in order to try to entice Barabas into joining their orders, thereby gaining his wealth. The behavior of Malta’s Christian governor is certainly the most unprincipled of any of the characters, sparing no opportunity for the exercise of theft, murder and self-aggrandizement, especially at the expense of the Jews and Turks. When Barabas requires Christian mercy, though he has been continuously upbraided throughout the play for not showing any himself, he receives none, from either the Christians or the Turks.

In truth, none of the ethnic and religious groups depicted in Marlowe’s play behave any better than the others. All profess superior moral and religious values yet all display the same debased hypocrisy, violence, rage and greed. Marlowe appears at first to be launching into a familiar and despicable anti-Semitic screed, but by the end of the poem there is no doubt that what he is expressing is not so much anti-Semitism as cynicism and indeed misanthropy. Shakespeare’s play amounts to a defense of Christian values and culture against Jewish ones and, as I’ve argued, in fact has a distinctly anti-Semitic element although it is also a humanist and antiracist text. Marlowe’s play is simply cynical, misanthropic and deeply antireligious. He holds all cultures, civilizations and religious traditions in equal contempt and in that sense, I think it is perfectly impossible to describe the Jew of Malta as anti-Semitic. It’s anti-everything.

As I have been arguing with regard to Islamophobia, a generalized attack on religions and cultures — if not even on humanity itself — whether in the form of an analysis or a satire in my view should not be regarded as an instance of bigotry. Shakespeare’s play does, in fact, contain an assertion of Christian superiority at least in terms of ethics and values over those of the Jews. The best argument that can be made on behalf of Shylock is that he is a bad Jew rather than that he is bad because he is Jewish. But I think ultimately this case fails because the indictment of Shylock is such a perfect replication of the traditional Christian indictment of Judaism. Interestingly, the religion now indicted most frequently in the Christian world for excessive legalism, literalism, dogmatism, intolerance, lack of mercy and forgiveness, and irrational inflexibility is not Judaism but Islam. The most common Christian complaint about both Judaism and Islam is that they are religions of law that emphasize justice whereas Christianity is supposedly a religion of higher moral ethics that emphasizes mercy and forgiveness. It would be an understatement to say that history does not bear out any such claim as a practical consequence of these theological distinctions as Marlowe appears to have understood all too well.

One final observation on the contrapuntal reading of the two plays is that it absolutely crushes any notion that Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. This ridiculous idea, which actually has some currency (as does the equally ludicrous candidacy of the Earl of Oxford), amazingly enough has some supporters, and not all of them are fringe idiots. However, it strikes me as perfectly impossible that the person who wrote the Merchant is the same individual capable of writing the Jew. No question styles change over time, and early Shakespeare bears scant resemblance to mid and later Shakespeare in some ways, but personalities don’t change. Fundamental worldviews don’t change. The author of the Merchant, and all of Shakespeare’s plays, is plainly an idealist. He was an early humanist, a man in love with love, taken to task by those who thought only God should be truly loved in the medieval fashion. There is almost no aspect of human baseness, corruption and foulness that is not reflected in Shakespeare’s characters, so he’s no Pollyanna, but he is still an idealist at heart, and I don’t think this fails to come through in any of his plays, including the Merchant. This author loves humanity, for all its myriad faults, like his greatest tragic hero Othello, “not wisely but too well.”

Marlowe, on the other hand, is an arch-cynic, one of the great cynics of all time. He doesn’t seem to have believed in much of anything except the value of art, his own extraordinary talents (had Shakespeare died on the same day Marlowe did we would remember Marlowe as far greater an artist), having a good time, and the fundamental corruption of human existence. This sensibility — that everyone is worse than the next person — defines entirely the ethos and dramatic economy of the Jew of Malta. In the Merchant, at least some of Shakespeare’s characters are trying to be good, and the contrast I outlined above between his vision of superior Christian ethics versus supposedly inflexible and draconian Jewish ethics again points to some hope in virtue and “the quality of mercy.” In Marlowe’s play, the concept of mercy, the concept of human goodness, is a joke. Bottom line: these are two completely different authors with completely different sensibilities, completely different worldviews and completely different personalities. If it isn’t obvious from all the more direct and clear-cut facts that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, at least a comparison between these two masterpieces demonstrates there is no possibility they were penned by the same hand.

Shortly after this posting went live, I was contacted by Seth Duerr who informs me that he is currently directing rotating repertory performances of both of these plays at the JCC of Manhattan, a perfect location. For more information see:
This is a brilliant idea, and I shall be bitterly disappointed if I’m not able to make it before these performances close.