This lecture considers the value of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as a source for the history of the Jews in Europe. It examines the portrayal of Shylock in detail and argues that Shakespeare offers a more positive and humane conception of the Jew than many of his contemporaries. When compared with the figure of Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Shylock can be recognized as a far more sympathetic and credible figure. Though far from admirable, Shylock is not a ridiculous caricature—he is a plausible and ambivalent character grounded in contemporary knowledge of European Jewry. The complexity of Shylock thus sheds considerable light on Shakespeare’s use of sources, his engagement with his predecessors, and his ideas about Jews and Judaism.
Leonard Neidorf is Professor of English at Nanjing University. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and his B.A. from New York University. He is the author of two monographs—The Art and Thought of the Beowulf Poet (Cornell University Press, 2022) and The Transmission of Beowulf: Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior (Cornell University Press, 2017)—as well as the editor of three books. He is an Associate Editor of English Studies (Taylor & Francis). In 2020, Neidorf was awarded the Beatrice White Prize by the English Association for his research on medieval literature. Neidorf has published more than 80 papers in A&HCI journals. His work has appeared in a wide range of journals including ELH, Folklore, Modern Philology, Review of English Studies, Tolkien Studies, Journal of Germanic Linguistics, and Nature Human Behaviour.