The Jewish ghetto in Venice was the first to be established in Europe in 1516 and Shakespeare would have been well aware of this. A ghetto was a section of the city reserved for Jewish people where they were forced to live, separated from society. It assured that they had limited interaction with Christians. A section of the Jewish ghetto still exists in Venice today and people from around the world visit it to reflect and remember the prejudices Jewish people have suffered throughout history.
Find and research a Jewish man or woman who either lived in the Jewish ghetto at some point in history or in London during Shakespeare’s time (the 16th and 17th century).
Use the following questions as a guide for your research:
- What was the person’s name, and when were they born?
- Where and how did they live?
- What was their profession?
- How did they respond to their state of living?
- How did others in the community who were Christian respond to them, if known?
- Can you find any interesting stories from their life? If so, what are they?
- Did they have to practice their faith in secret? If so, what did they do?
- How do you respond to the story of their life?
Include any other key facts or historical elements that you find during your research.
Looking at the play
Now answer the following questions in relation to The Merchant of Venice:
- What does this research tell you about the political and social climate of Venice and London at the time?
- Does this change or affect your response to the character of Shylock before seeing the production? Do you feel more connected to or interested in a character like this?
NB: When you read or see the play, note of the kind of language that is used towards Shylock and how he responds to this. Make note of how Shakespeare treats the issue of religious prejudice as the scenes unfold.