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Shadows of Prejudice: Anti-Semitism in 16th Century and its Influence on Shakespeare and Marlowe

In 16th century England, anti-Semitism was a pervasive and deeply ingrained sentiment, as Jews had been officially expelled from the country since 1290. This context of societal prejudice and misconceptions about Jewish people heavily influenced the works of prominent playwrights of the time, such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. These writers often incorporated Jewish characters in their plays, which inevitably resulted in the perpetuation of stereotypes and anti-Semitic themes, as exemplified in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta."

  1. The Historical Context of Anti-Semitism in 16th-Century England

1.1. The Expulsion of Jews in 1290

1.2. The Cultural Memory of Jewish Presence and the Perpetuation of Stereotypes

1.3. The Role of Religion in Shaping Attitudes Towards Jews

1.4. The Lack of Direct Interaction with Jewish People and its Impact on Perceptions

Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" features a Jewish character named Shylock, who is portrayed as a cunning and vengeful moneylender. The play's plot revolves around the story of Antonio, a Venetian merchant who borrows money from Shylock. Shylock demands a pound of Antonio's flesh as collateral, which showcases his ruthlessness and vindictiveness. While Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock is undeniably layered and complex, it is impossible to deny the play's anti-Semitic undertones, as the character embodies many negative stereotypes of Jewish people prevalent in Elizabethan England.

  1. Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"

2.1. The Character of Shylock: A Complex Portrayal of a Jewish Moneylender

2.2. The Themes of Vengeance, Greed, and Deception in Shylock's Character

2.3. The Anti-Semitic Undertones of the Play

2.4. The Potential Satirical and Critical Elements of the Play

Similarly, Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" presents Barabas, a wealthy and deceitful Jewish merchant who seeks revenge on those who have wronged him. Barabas, like Shylock, exemplifies several anti-Semitic stereotypes – he is greedy, manipulative, and vengeful. Marlowe's play is often considered more overtly anti-Semitic than Shakespeare's, as Barabas's character is painted in a more consistently negative light, with little to no redeeming qualities.

  1. Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta"

3.1. The Character of Barabas: A Deceitful and Vengeful Jewish Merchant

3.2. The Overt Anti-Semitic Depiction of Barabas

3.3. The Comparison Between Barabas and Shylock 3.4. The Satirical and Critical Aspects of the Play

Despite the anti-Semitic depictions found in these plays, it is important to consider the historical context in which they were written. In 16th century England, Jews were effectively invisible, having been expelled from the country centuries earlier. Consequently, playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe relied on the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions of Jewish people to create their characters. It is also worth noting that both plays contain elements of satire and criticism of the broader society, potentially suggesting that the authors were using these Jewish characters to expose the prejudices and hypocrisies of their time.

  1. The Impact of Historical Context on the Depiction of Jewish Characters

4.1. The Reliance on Stereotypes and Misconceptions in Character Creation

4.2. The Absence of Jewish People in England and the Playwrights' Lack of Direct Experience

4.3. The Use of Jewish Characters to Expose the Prejudices and Hypocrisies of Society

4.4. The Potential for Critical Interpretation of the Plays

In conclusion, anti-Semitism was a pervasive sentiment in 16th century England, and it significantly influenced the works of notable playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlowe. Both "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Jew of Malta" are emblematic of this cultural bias, as they perpetuate negative stereotypes of Jewish people. However, it is crucial to analyze these works within their historical context and to consider the possibility that these playwrights were, in fact, attempting to critique the prejudices and hypocrisies of their society through their controversial portrayals of Jewish characters.


Barton, Anne. "Shakespeare and the Limits of Language." Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 19-30.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Gross, John. Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Honigmann, E.A.J. "Shakespeare's Jews." Shakespeare Survey 52 (1999): 19-30.

Jones, Emrys. Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta. London: Ernest Benn Limited,


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