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Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

5. Anti-Semitism

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In this module, we think about Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in the play and in its performance history, focusing in particular on: (i) the impact of the events of the 20th century on how we think about anti-Semitism; (ii) the treatment of Jews in 16th-century Venice, where the play is set, compared to England, where the play is written; (iii) the apparent lack of any kind of visual markers of Jewishness in the play; (iv) the range of anti-Semitic insults directed at Shylock throughout the play; (v) the presentation of Shylock as merciless and bloodthirsty in the court scene; (vi) the fraught relationship between Antonio and Shylock, in which both men claim to hate the other because of their religion (among other things); (vii) Shylock’s famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech, his resemblance to other tragic protagonists, e.g. Richard II, and the extent to which Shylock should be seen as the play’s main character (rather than the titular Antonio); (viii) the alternative title of the play found in the Stationers Register, The Jew of Venice, and the importance of Marlowe’s 1589/90 play, The Jew of Malta, in interpreting the figure of Shylock; (ix) the extent to which being Jewish (in the eyes of Shakespeare’s audience) was more a question of what you did rather than who you were; (x) the critical reception of Jessica, who leaves her father (and steals his money) to marry Lorenzo; (xi) the idea of an elopement to defy an interfering father as a comic trope, cf. Hermia and Lysander vs. Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet in the play of the same name, Cymbeline and The Merry Wives of Windsor; (xii) Michael Radford’s 2004 film of the play and its implications for the fragility of our sympathy for Shylock; and (xiii) the broader atmosphere of xenophobia and racism that permeates the play, e.g. Portia’s comments about the Prince of Morocco, several characters’ comments about the unnamed Moor whom Launcelot Gobbo has impregnated, etc.


In this course, Dr Sophie Duncan (University of Oxford) explores Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. We begin in the first module by thinking about Venice as a key setting for the play and its significance at the time Shakespeare was writing. After that, we consider the presentation of same-sex desire in the play, focusing in particular on the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, before turning in the third module to Shakespeare’s sources for the play, how he changes and adapts them, and what the implications of those changes are. In the fourth module, we think about the three female characters of the play – Portia, Nerissa and Jessica – before moving in the fifth module to consider the Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in both the play and its performance history.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, ed. John Drakakis) unless otherwise specified. Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She is an expert on Shakespeare in performance, and in the broader fields of theatre history and the performance of gender and race. Her books include SHAKESPEARE’S WOMEN AND THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Oxford University Press, 2016), described as "extraordinary .... a welcome antidote to prevailing assumptions" (Times Literary Supplement), and SHAKESPEARE’S PROPS (Routledge, 2019).

She has also published extensively on Victorian theatre and culture, from Jack the Ripper to the suffragettes, via Oscar Wilde and Ira Aldridge (the first African American actor to perform in Europe). With Rachael Lennon, she co-wrote WOMEN AND POWER: THE STRUGGLE FOR SUFFRAGE (National Trust Books: 2018). Her new edition of Henrik Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE will be published by Methuen early in 2020.

Sophie read English at Oriel College, Oxford, and received her doctorate from Brasenose, Oxford in 2013. In 2018, she was the National Trust’s advisor on their national programme marking the first hundred years of women’s suffrage in Britain. She has worked extensively in theatre, radio and television as a historical advisor, including the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, the Kiln, the New Vic, BBC Studios and Radio 4. She presented an episode of The Essay for BBC Radio 3 and has appeared on Woman’s Hour as well as numerous podcasts.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Duncan, S. (2020, January 24). Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice - Anti-Semitism [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Duncan, S. "Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice – Anti-Semitism." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Jan 2020,