Anti-Semitism and The Merchant of Venice

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August 12, 2016

Introduction and Overview of the Guide

Anti-Semitism and The Merchant of Venice: A Discussion Guide for Educators (Grades 10-12) is a tool for teachers presenting The Merchant of Venice to their students. This guide is not intended as an exhaustive study of the play. Rather, it is a supplement intended to guide an exploration of the problematic issue of anti-Semitism as part of the broader discussion of the play.

The initial sections of this guide provide important contextual information about the teaching of controversial literature, the impact of anti-Semitism throughout history and the beliefs and attitudes prevalent in 16th century England that likely influenced Shakespeare’s writing.

The core of the guide, however, focuses on Shylock as the central figure of discussion. When the play was first registered for publication, it was described as “a book of the Merchant of Venice or otherwise called The Jew of Venice.” The “Merchant” is Antonio, but Shylock is the most pivotal character.

Over four hundred years after The Merchant of Venice was first written, the debate rages on about Shakespeare’s intentions regarding the character of Shylock, whether the play is anti-Semitic or a criticism of the Christian anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s time, and even whether the play should be taught in schools. The goal of this guide is not to answer these questions, but to help teachers raise these very important issues with their students and to offer discussion questions, related activities and other resources that support an in-depth exploration of the play.

About the 2004 Sony Pictures Version of the Movie

This production of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, was chosen because of the skillful way the delicate subject matter is handled. The film begins with explanatory statements on the screen, putting the play in historical context. The text elucidates that at the time, Jews were forced into ghettoes due to pervasive discrimination and that many became moneylenders because they were barred from other professions, providing important background for what the audience is about to see. In addition, the portrayal of Shylock by Al Pacino is nuanced—he is an empathetic character who is seen as not only a victimizer but also a victim of his times.


  • Teaching controversial texts
  • Character analysis
  • Exploring anti-Semitism and myths and facts