Shylock in the EFL-Classroom. Teaching the Aspect of Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"

Term Paper, 2016

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Marc Felsbrecher (Author)


Table of Contents


1. “The Merchant of Venice” as an Anti-Semitic Play
1.1 Historical Background of the Play
1.2 The Conception of Shylock as a Character
1.3 Different Stagings of Shylock throughout History

2. “The Merchant of Venice” in the EFL-Classroom - Teaching Approaches
2.1 Teaching Materials
2.2 Learning Objectives
2.3 Methods of Teaching

3. Conclusion



The aspect of antisemitism in Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” has been relevant throughout the play’s history and it has been discussed against different historical backgrounds and with different intentions. But especially since the traumatic historical experience of the Holocaust, the question “Is Shakespeare’s play anti-Semitic and does it evoke anti-Semitic sentiments in the audience?” has been of crucial importance for Shakespeare scholars and theatre directors. Opinions range from the notion that “the Merchant of Venice seems […] a profoundly and crudely anti-Semitic play” (Cohen 1980:53) and that “the Holocaust made and makes ´The Merchant of Venice´ unplayable” (Bloom 1998) to the frequently expressed theory that by depicting anti-Semitic behaviour Shakespeare, in fact, warns us against being anti-Semitic.

But the complexity and controversy of the subject matter might put an even bigger challenge to teachers dealing with the play in EFL-classrooms. However, as compulsory teaching materials for the written Abitur examinations (advanced level) in Lower Saxony in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 the Ministry of Culture lists excerpts from “The Merchant of Venice” or “Romeo and Juliet” (Nds. Kultusministerium: Hinweise zu den schriftlichen Abiturprüfungen 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 im Fach Englisch)[1] . So the question that put itself to a teacher in the past four years and will put itself to him in the next two years is not Will I discuss anti-Semitism in my English class at all? But: How will I deal with anti-Semitism in my English class?

In order to answer this question, i. e. how to deal with the aspect of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” in the English foreign language classroom, this paper will at first briefly examine the historical background of the play, give a survey on different understandings and interpretations of Shylock and take a look at various stagings of the play (chapter 1). Secondly, it will examine the teaching materials on “The Merchant of Venice” currently available to teachers with regard to the aspect of anti-Semitism and will compare and assess those materials. Finally, it will put down learning objectives and outline possible methods of teaching (chapter 2).

1. “The Merchant of Venice” as an Anti-Semitic Play

1.1 Historical Background of the Play

“The Merchant of Venice” was written and first staged between 1596 and 1598. As the majority of English Jews had been expelled under Edward I in 1290, there lived only very few Jews in Shakespeare’s England so that most of his contemporaries had never had any personal contact with Jews. In Venice, however, where the play is set but which Shakespeare probably never visited, Jews played an important role in business, especially as money-lenders, even though they were discriminated against in many ways. “At the time Shakespeare was writing, Venice captured the imaginations of people in England. […] So Venice became a popular location for London playwrights to set their works” (Globe Education Shakespeare:4). On the other hand, stereotypes and fears of Jews deriving from the Middle Ages were still prevalent in England at Shakespeare’s time: In 1592 Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Jew of Malta”, whose main character, Barabas, is an ursurer and can be described as a gross anti-Semitic caricature, was first staged. And when in 1594 Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a Jew of Portuguese descent, was executed for spying and plotting to kill the Queen, Marlowe’s play was performed twice within ten days of the execution.

1.2 The Conception of Shylock as a Character

Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” does portray prejudices against Jews at the author’s time, the character of Shylock was surely influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s character Barnabas, and Shakespeare may have profited from details of the trial against Rodrigo Lopez[2]. But whereas it is futile to speculate upon Shakespeare’s intention in creating the character of Shylock, it is of great importance to examine the conception of his character. Because what makes Shakespeare’s Shylock basically different from stereotyped characters like Marlowe’s Barnabas is the psychological intensity of his character, his human quality: “As a stereotype, he has undergone countless mutations, and for nearly two hundred years there have been claims that he is much more than a stereotype, that he is meant to engage our sympathies in ways that would have once seemed inconceivable” (Gross 1992:1). How Shylock’s characteristics like his greed and his hatred of Christians can be explained by the discriminating behaviour of the inhabitants of Venice (especially Antonio) and how his motives can thus be understood by the audience has been shown by many scholars. Hermann Sinsheimer, for example, regards Shylock as “the only realistic figure” in a “romantic comedy” and shows step by step, from Shylock’s first word on stage, how Shakespeare realizes this conception (cf.. Sinsheimer 1992:140ff.). Nevertheless, there are also voices who maintain that “The Merchant of Venice”, in spite of Shylock’s human characteristics, is basically anti-Semitic. D. M. Cohen, for example, states that “although few writers on the subject are prepared to concede as much, it is quite possible that Shakespeare didn’t give a damn about Jews or about insulting England’s minuscule Jewish community, and that, if he did finally humanize his Jew, he did so simply to enrich his drama” (Cohen 1980:53).

Thus the debate if “The Merchant of Venice” is an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semites cannot be finally settled or as John Gross puts it: “We can argue for ever about whether Shakespeare was expressing anti-Semitic sentiments, or merely describing them” (Gross 1992:287).

1.3 Different Stagings of Shylock throughout History

Although Shylock’s interaction with the other characters of the play, i. e. the Christian characters, and the conception of his daughter Jessica need to be considered as well, any opinion on the play as being either anti-Semitic or non-anti-Semitic must necessarily depend on the respective interpretation of Shylock as a character and consequently on how he is staged. Throughout the history of the play there have been three basic interpretations, i. e. three typical stagings of Shylock:

Firstly, Shylock has been played as a buffoon: At Shakespeare’s time Shylock was probably portrayed as a comic stock character (the Jew as a miser and ursurer), who was at the same time evil and funny. At all times he has been played as a witty character who appears to be funny through his ironic comments on Christians.

Secondly, Shylock has been played as a cruel villain: a diabolical monster, malevolent, sinister, vengeful, malicious, inhuman, sordid and despicable.

Thirdly, Shylock has been played as a tragic and sympathetic outsider: the proud, dignified, noble Jew; the isolated outsider and stranger; the tragic hero; the martyr; the scapegoat; the member of a persecuted minority, justified in his desire for revenge.

John Gross gives an extensive overview of the performance history of the play and the various interpretations of Shylock from 1600 to 1939 on the English and American stage (Gross 1992:89-184). He says that “very little is known about the early stage history of The Merchant of Venice” (Gross 1992:89) but that in 1701 there opened a very successful adaption of the play by George Granville called “The Jew of Venice”, which was a satire and showed Shylock as a buffoon: “He [Granville] was content to make him a clown: in the original production … the part was assigned to Thomas Doggett, the leading comic actor of the day” (Gross 1992:93).

In 1741 the actor Charles Macklin appeared in a new production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and his interpretation of Shylock was a different one. He played Shylock as a terrifying villain: “From the outset he was determined to get away from the comic interpretation, to stint nothing of the character’s ferocity” (Gross 1992:94) […] “and by the end of the evening the seal had been set on one of the great triumphs of the eighteenth-century stage” (Gross 1992:95).

In 1814 the actor Edmund Kean delivered yet another very successful interpretation of the character: “His first night as Shylock was to become one of the great theatrical legends of the century” (Gross 1992:109). “His Shylock was still a villain. [But] his great achievement was to raise Shylock above sordidness, to endow him with a large measure of dignity and humanity” (Gross 1992:111).

And finally, in a production that opened in 1879, the actor Henry Irving gave an outstanding interpretation of Shylock about which John Gross says, “Irving’s most important decision was to portray him as a victim, even in his villainy” (Gross 1992:128). He quotes Irving saying, “I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used” (ibd.).

Regarding Germany and Austria the common notion is that during the 1930s, for obvious political reasons, “The Merchant of Venice” was frequently staged and misused as propaganda. But actually, as Hortmann explains, the play was scarcely performed because theatre producers felt unsure “how to perform it: as a “Stürmer”caricature, which many directors considered tasteless, or in a pro-Shylock sense, which would have been suicidal” (Hortmann 1998:94). In 1943 there was, however, one infamous production by Lothar Muenthel in Vienna, in which the German actor Werner Krauss, who specialized in playing Jews in a discriminating way, performed as Shylock (Hortmann 1998:136).

The post-war English and German/Austrian stage features a variety of interesting stagings, many of which put Shakespeare’s play in a modern context. Peter Zadek for example, in his 1988 Vienna production, shows Shylock as “a middle-aged Wall Street broker, designer-dressed and equipped with attache case and pocket computer” (Hortmann 1998:259).

A recent German production is the one by Nicolas Stemann in the Münchener Kammerspiele, which opened in October 2015. Stemann stages the play in an open-plan office, makes numerous allusions to current cultural themes like the Eurovision Song Contest and refers to political issues like Nazi Germany or the terror attacks on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Finally, there are several film adaptations, the most notable of which is Michael Radford’s film of 2004 starring Al Pacino as Shylock.


[1] For the Abitur examinations in 2018 Shakespeare´s “Romeo and Juliet” are listed as compulsory reading only.

[2] Interestingly, the title page to the first quatro of 1600 reads: “With the extreame crueltie of Shylock the lewe.”

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Shylock in the EFL-Classroom. Teaching the Aspect of Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"
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shylock, efl-classroom, teaching, aspect, anti-semitism, shakespeare, merchant, venice
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Marc Felsbrecher (Author), 2016, Shylock in the EFL-Classroom. Teaching the Aspect of Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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