Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about one of the age-old questions: Is The Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic play?

As I often do in this conversation, I compare Shylock to Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Shylock says some negative things, but Barabas goes so far as to say he kills homeless people for fun when nobody’s watching. We can’t imagine something like that coming from Shylock’s mouth. He’s more complex than that. He has more humanity.

My friend said that, in some ways, Shylock is more dangerous than Barabas for precisely this reason. Barabas is a caricature. In a modern world, we know this isn’t the way people behave, no matter what stereotypes we have about them. Shylock, on the other hand, can promote anti-Semitism because he is believable, but also subscribes to many Jewish stereotypes.

While I always say that Shylock is too complex to be dismissed as a mere stereotype, there is some truth to this. What do you think?

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