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November 24, 2014  
 
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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: SHAKESPEARE AND ANTI-SEMITISM

Grade Level:

9-12

Overview:

According to author John Gross, "never has one character of the stage provoked such controversy or achieved such infamy as Shakespeare's enigmatic Shylock." Designed for students who have already read The Merchant of Venice, this exercise uses the play to get students to learn about anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's time, compare it to 20th-century anti-Semitism, and decide for themselves whether Shakespeare was "guilty" of furthering and perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes.

Time Frame:

3 hours

Objectives:

  • learn about the background of anti-Semitism in Renaissance Europe
  • understand how anti-Semitism has evolved and manifested itself over the centuries
  • understand the problems inherent in judging a person of the past by today's standards

Extensions:

  • Have students compare Shylock with Barabas from Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. You may want to incorporate the essay at http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/iemls/conf/texts/grubbs.html; while it makes mention of anti-Semitism, it focuses on other issues (loyalty and the family) as the main basis of its comparisons.
  • Have students research how stage portrayals of Shylock from Shakespeare's era to the present have reflected cultural attitudes of the time towards Jews in general. Make sure they pay particular attention to how the Nazis subverted The Merchant of Venice to their own ends.

Reproducible student sheet for this exercise


 
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