Weighted down by millions of lost souls and eternally scarred bodies, Shylock’s humanity and his persecution is a given for so many modern readers of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Actually, I remember that after I finished a talk about Shylock and nineteenth-century politics for the Jewish Historical society in Manchester, a member of the audience approached me and adamantly proclaimed that Shakespeare clearly intended Shylock to be a victim. He was astounded to hear the fact that Shylock was simply perceived as a blood-thirsty villain during the nineteenth century.
In today’s post-Holocaust world, the memory of persecution and death makes it difficult to ignore Shylock’s humanity and plea for justice. However, in the early nineteenth century when the image of Shylock still haunted English imagination, the most common portrayal of a Jew was a negative racial stereotype. Even when Jews gained political equality in England, in the mid-1800s, Jews were still depicted as either completely villainous or impossibly virtuous.
Nevertheless, the question whether Shylock is a victim or a villain, even 200 years ago, remains as ambiguous and politically charged as it is today. This could be because the question is overburdened by history, progress, prejudice and tradition. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, urbanisation and industrialisation, capitalism and the new credit-money-economy doomed Shylock as the embodied spirit of economic development. For many, for that association alone, he assumed the face of evil. However, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw progress in intellectual and political thought. The time was defined by its advocacy of secularisation, of forbearance, of cosmopolitan ideas and equality. These notions of tolerance encouraged many to review their perception of the Jew and re-consider Shylock as a victim of persecution and false-hatred.
Taking into consideration these ideological differences, the course I am now devising for the Continuing Education at The University of Liverpool will address and re-evaluate the interpretations of Jewish life and Jewish identity as they were set into fiction by both non-Jewish and Jewish writers. By reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Benjamin Disraeli and Amy Levi, I hope students would be able to see how these writers waged a racial debate, presenting political, economic and religious arguments about the Jews’ place in English society.
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