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Not Worth Laughing About: Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice

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  1. Introduction
  2. The strong focus on the many aspects of Jewish culture
  3. Theodore Komisarjevsky's 1932 staging of Merchant
  4. Komisarjevsky's attempt to overshadow the anti-Semitic undertones of Merchant
  5. Shylock: Not just an ambiguous 'moneylender'
  6. Showing the difference between religion and personal beliefs
  7. Conclusion
  8. Bibliography

As time changes, so do the interpretations of Shakespeare's dramas. Newer productions are supposed to appeal to modern audiences by reflecting current attitudes and cultural beliefs. Anti-Semitic viewpoints existed long before Shakespeare and his play, The Merchant of Venice, which is considered by many to be anti-Semitic. However, the reasons for anti-Semitic thought have changed greatly over the past century. Tension between Christians and Jews is one of the play's most important aspects, and is emphasized in earlier productions. In more recent productions, however, more weight has been placed on personal beliefs, and less on religion. Shylock's profession overshadows his faith. This change represents a shift in modern culture: looking at the individual beliefs, not the religion or ethnicity of a person to define his or her actions.

[...] In the attempt to stray away from the harshness of Komisarjevsky's interpretation, Langham ended up with something similar to Herbert Tree's Merchant. Jonathan Miller's 1970 production was one of the first that strayed away from making Judaism the sole reason to sympathize with or resent Shylock. This was achieved not just by the actor's (Laurence Olivier) portrayal, but also with costuming and set arrangements. The setting was in a late nineteenth century Venice that resembled London. Shylock was dressed in a ?shiny top hat (with skull cap underneath), and sleek morning coat? (Moore 350). [...]

[...] The Merchant of Venice is an excellent example of a play that can be molded to fit common social opinions and beliefs. It is anti-Semitic, but it does not have to and should not be presented in the way that it was originally. The Elizabethan era is over and anti-Semitic beliefs should be gone along with it. Different productions through the years addressed the problems with and the reasons for anti-Semitism. Religious disputes between Christians have become financial disputes between non-Jews, and bankers that just happen to be Jewish. [...]

[...] In the historical context of the Elizabethan era, The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Its original purpose was to entertain audiences by playing up Jewish stereotypes?presenting them as greedy and evil. Shylock was supposed to be a caricature of a Jewish money lender: not only did he charge exorbitant amounts of interest on loans, he also demanded a pound of flesh from a Christian. Before Komisarjevsky's production, it had been almost fifty years since Shylock had been portrayed as a villain, and not as a tragic figure. [...]

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