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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Shakespeare and The First Jewish Ghetto

On 10 April 1516, the first Jewish ghetto in the world was created in Venice, Italy.

The Ghetto Nuovo in Venice

The Jews had a long history of work and trade in Venice, with records of their activities in the city dating as far back as the year 945.

As much as the Jewish people were not welcome into the city, the city needed their business. It is doubtful that Venice would have become the successful trading hub it was if it had not been for the Jewish merchants, importers and exporters, and moneylenders.

For example, in 1290, Jews were allowed to work in the city, but they were taxed at a higher rate.

It is interesting to note that this is the same year that the Jews were expelled from England. Rather than deal fairly with the Jewish population in England, which could have benefited the country as it was benefitting Venice, King Edward I kicked them out altogether. 

King Edward I

As bad as it was to be segregated in a ghetto, and be forced to wear clothing that identified them as Jews, the Jews thrived in Venice. Both in financial terms but also in terms of their faith.

They had been previously been prevented from building synagogues. By the end of the 16th century, they had built several.

Inside the Spanish Synagogue in Venice

Inside the Italian Synagogue in Venice

This flourishing relationship between Venice and the Jewish people lasted well into the 17th century.

So, while the relationship between Venetians and Jews was strong and successful, England couldn’t even admit that there were Jews in the country. This is despite the fact that the Queen’s own doctor, Rodrigo Lopez, was Jewish.

This contrast between Venice and London must have been striking to someone like William Shakespeare. 

With his own eyes he could see the booming business in London, and the great overseas trade with cities like Venice, which was changing the world around him.

He could see how a city like Venice benefited London, and was changing England’s financial and cultural landscape. 

If Venice, who could work so well with their Jewish people, was good for England, then were not Jews good for England? If Jews were so good for England, then should not England embrace the Jews, and allow them to live and work in England?

But if Jews were so bad, and considered something of a bogeyman in the English culture, how could they be so good for Venice, and in turn good for England?

These are questions that were bedeviling Englishmen, including Shakespeare, in 1596. 

He decided to make a play about it. But what kind of play?

He obviously wanted to cause a stir and attract paying crowds, so he decided to make it a comedy.

But should it be a polite comedy, with witty banter and sophisticated dialogue?

Or should it be a rude and riotous comedy that inflames the crowds?

He chose the latter. He wanted to write an incendiary comedy, one that would figuratively explode on stage and bring down the house.

He wanted to address how business was changing the culture. He would have to write about a merchant who does business with a Jew.

He didn’t want to call the play 'The Jew.' That probably wouldn’t have passed the censor.

So he would call it The Merchant of... where should the Merchant be from? London?

He wanted to lampoon the Elizabethan English prejudice against the Jews, and flagrantly stick their bigotry in their faces.

Of course he would have been attacked by a mob and skinned alive by his fellow Englishmen if he set the play in London, and had called the play "The Merchant Of London."

Shakespeare didn’t want to die, and he had to get the play past the royal censor. He had to set the play in a city other than London.

He could set in Venice. After all, Venice is the first city with a ghetto for Jews, and it’s intolerance of Jews is well known.

'Old Ghetto'

Shakespeare also knew that his audience of Protestant Englishmen would love nothing more than to insult and hurl abuses at Venetian Papists.

This is how and why Shakespeare came to decide to write The Merchant of Venice.

The result is a play that has long been misunderstood as a tragedy, or a tragic comedy.

It is neither.

It is a bawdy, scathingly politically incorrect farce.

It was one of Shakespeare’s greatest successes. King James loved it so much that he had it played at court twice in the spring of 1605.

It is a testament to the strength of the play that it has endured all these centuries, despite the fact that it has been so misunderstood.

In my version of The Merchant of Venice, I discovered the incendiary comedy in the play. My version shows how it did explode on stage and bring down the house.


David B. Schajer

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