The Jews were no longer a part of English history, and in fact were expunged from it.
It was into this atmosphere that Shakespeare was born in 1580, 300 years after the Jews had been forced out of England. If there were Jews in London at the time of Shakespeare, they were certainly in the minority.
In 1589, Marlow created a play entitled the Jew of Malta. It was a play that did not vilify the Jew, but satirizes Christian society. Using a Jewish villain, Barabas, as protagonist when his property is seized and he is expelled from England, Marlow has his character embark upon a vengeful slaughter of nuns and other Christians. In the play, Barabas is boiled to death in front of the audience, creating sensational and violent theater. While the play vilifies the Jews, the main point of the play was to satirize Christian society for its cruelty, double standards and deception. Marlow's play followed shortly upon a public incident where the queen's physician was accused, tortured and executed for plotting to poison her. The physician, Rodrigo Lopez, turned out to be secretly Jewish (Portuguese) and this fact inflamed the British public against the Jews again.
This was the atmosphere surrounding the writing of the Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare drew upon historical themes from European and Eastern history, bringing together plots from El Pecorone (1558) by Ser Giovanni, Boccaccio and Gower's motif of the choosing of the correct casket in order to win a lady love, and an ancient Middle Ages story from the East about a merchant collecting a pound of flesh in return for a debt owed (Ephraim 475).
It was not until Cromwell's time, beginning in 1655, that Jews were officially allowed back into England. But until that time, the prejudice and hatred of this race of people, who were hated for both their religion (which denied Christianity) and for their bloodline, which British people assumed was tainted with evil and cruelty, was common. In Elizabethan England, Shakespeare could not have helped but notice and encounter anti-Jewish sentiments and perhaps felt some within him, having been raised on the fiction and history surrounding the vilification of that race (Kaplan 24).
In Shakespeare's play, placed in Italy, rather than England, Shylock knows he has the law on his side, as he comes before the judge. But he is mainly enraged that Christianity would take away what was his - his payment for a loan of money to Antonio. In his rage, Shylock is demanding his rightful share of Venetian society and respect by the community. He makes the speech about slavery to point out that, as the Christians own people, so does he, too, when they sell themselves to him. In allowing slavery, Venetian society is buying into Shylock's demands, and while Shylock is not given what he is due, he makes it clear that all of society is getting away with murder. Shylock is a mirror of all that is bad in society. He is the one buying and selling human flesh and demanding it, no matter the consequence. He is the one who is agonizing over the loss of everything, yet blindly pursuing monetary gain as a penance for all the wrongs that have been done to him. He has not been respected as a man, but vilified, and he is angry and vengeful as a result.
Actors who have portrayed Shylock, such as Lee J. Cobb, interpreted his very human role differently, expressing both Shylock's cruel villainy and his human side. The different actors who have portrayed the famous Jewish financier portrayed him as either rather shallow and evil or as a human person who hid behind a mask of hard-nosed villainy (Columbia, 2005).
Race relations and slavery are not the only issues dealt with in the Merchant of Venice. Other themes of fatherhood, for instance, run throughout this intricately woven play. Rosenheim says the themes of blindness, fatherhood and power are created in allegory in the Merchant of Venice. These themes are then primarily set out like the parable of the Prodigal Son in Launcelot vs. his father, Old Gobbo, and, furthermore, to the "father" of Jessica, Shylock, versus his "son," Antonio (Rosenheim 156).
In conclusion, the play the Merchant of Venice depicts characters who are not as obviously evil or heroic as originally seen. And the message of the play is not that Jews are bloodthirsty savages who only want to be paid, if not by money, then by blood. The play simply raises the question of stereotypes and of the audience's prejudices toward a race of people, in order to examine it in their own minds. There is no answer to the question of whether Shylock was good or evil. Critics who have placed the blame either squarely on Shylock for being evil or who have taken the opposite tact, have missed the point. The point of the play is not to display Jewish villainy, but to show the humanity, to examine pity, to find the meaning of mercy and to dread the consequences of revenge.
Cobb, Lee J." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press. 2001-04.
Ephraim, Michelle. "The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays." Shakespeare Quarterly.- Volume 55, Number 4, Winter 2004, pp. 475-479.
Kaplan, M. Lindsay. "Jessica's mother: Medieval constructions of Jewish race and gender in the Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare Quarterly Volume 58, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 1-30. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/shakespeare_quarterly/toc/shq58.1.html.
Mahon, John W. And Mahon, Ellen Macleod. (Eds). The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays (Book Review) New York: Routledge, 2002. xiv + 456 pp. index. illus. $95. ISBN: 0-415-92999-7. http://www.bookrags.com/criticism/the-merchant-of-venice-crit5_9/.
Miller, Jo, "Patterns of Anti-Jewish violence in the wake of the earliest ritual murder accusations" Violence and Belief. April 16, 1994. New York: Fordham University. http://www.jomiller.com/personal/violence.html
Moore, R.I. The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford, 1987).
Rosenheim, Judith. "Allegorical Commentary in the Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXIV, 1996, pp. 156-210.