Re-examining The Merchant of Venice: Politics, Religion, and Gender in Early Modern Venice
Brigham Young University
Read at the 2011 Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol I.
Despite the fame of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and its widely recognized depictions of Shylock, the ‘merciless’ Jew, we often fail to appreciate the deeper themes and observations that Shakespeare develops about religion, gender, and how socioeconomic factors mix and divide social groups. Like any great work of literature, this play can compellingly be read in a number of ways. From a historical standpoint, however, Shakespeare’s commentary prompts a number of questions that he is unable to answer within his own text. Among these puzzling questions are musings about what or who inspired his story, his personal exposure to Jews, and the supposed philo- or anti-Semitic overtones that critics have argued about over the years. Additionally, Shakespeare’s depiction of the relationship between Jews and Christians, the use of Venice as a setting, and his portrayal of male-female relationships beg a number of “what was it really like?” questions that merit our attention. This essay intends to investigate three relationships that Shakespeare develops in The Merchant of Venice in order to understand how socio-religious groups defined themselves and how closely Shakespeare’s fictional story aligns with the historical accounts these groups made of themselves.
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