The Merchant of Venice (1594) is one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays. This comedy deals with the problems of usury, the difficulties of repaying debts of love, intolerance, and racism. The play is set in Venice in the late 15th century. The plot revolves around the main character Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, trying to make a living and survive in a country that despises and alienates him. .
In Elizabethan England, many people were anti-Semitic, driven by their hatred of usury and the ancient tradition of antipathy between the two religions, Christianity and Judaism. In the early Middle Ages, Jews were accused of exploiting Christians, and they were banned from England. They were not allowed back into the country until several decades after The Merchant of Venice was written. Nevertheless, a small group of the Jews did exist in the country and they were tolerated but they were never really a part of Elizabethan life. This historical fact emphasizes Shylock's position as an outsider. The absence of Jews in England allowed a popular negative image of the Jew to become a cultural stereotype and a part of the public imagination. Without Jews around to reveal the absurdity of the demonic murderous Jew stereotype, it became an exaggerated and powerful part of Elizabethan folklore. In the play, Shylock the Jew, is pictured with great complexity. The genius of the author is evident in the portrait of the main character, a ridiculed and taunted Jew for his cruelty, savageness and ruthlessness, whose evil side is just the mirror image of the world surrounding him.
The very first words Shylock speaks say a lot about him as an individual. They are about money: "Three thousand ducats, well". Shylock is a usurer, with a lust for gold. He is a villain and a victim, scared of the outside world and mistreated so much that he feels it is necessary to hit the only person he loves in order to emphasize the importance of protecting what is his.