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Ministry of Education.

Historical background

According to the book of Genesis, first book of the Old Testament, the Jews are God's chosen people. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and follow his teachings in the New Testament. The Jews were castigated as the people who crucified Jesus.


Sort the slips below into groups according to the information they contain. 

Using the information, answer the following questions:

  • Why did Jews become important in Shakespeare's day? (7)
  • What differences exist between Jews and Christians? (1)
  • What was Venice famous for in Shakespeare's time? (11)
  • What are the conventions of comedy? (10)
  • How had society moved on and developed? (13)
  • Who was Jason? (14)
  • What has led to anti-Semitism? (12)
  • What was the name of the dispersion of the Jews across the world? (9)
  • What was a noble friendship? (3)


9. In the Middle Ages the Jews left Israel in the Diaspora (scattering) and spread across the world. They lived in cities but separated themselves from others because of their religion, ritual, hygiene, dress and diet. As aliens and non-citizens, medieval Jews could not own land.

5. The Merchant of Venice is also a romance. Characters go on an adventure and find love. The casket story is from fairy tale and the bond story from folklore.

4. It is only possible to become a Jew by birth or by marrying and converting.

3. Elizabethans believed that a noble friendship could exist between two men that was platonic in nature.

8. In the Old Testament, the exacting of interest on a loan was forbidden to Jews who were lending to Jews. With the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century, money lending became more prevalent. Calvin allowed the taking of interest and in 1571, moderate interest was no longer illegal. Islam still forbids usury.

10. Elizabethan audiences would come to a comedy expecting certain conventions. At the end of the play, social order would be regained and there would often be marriage. Tragedies, on the other hand, always ended in the deaths of the protagonist. Comedic means the conventions of the genre of comedy rather than funny, ha ha.

7. Common professions for Jewish people were moneylenders (which was an unpopular trade) and jewellers. Jews lent money to monarchs and so became very useful but disreputable.

6. Shylock is a usurer, whereas Antonio is a merchant venturer, which is much more glamorous.

12. In 1290 King Edward 1 banished Jews from England. Some stayed and converted to Christianity. It was rumoured that Jews killed children and drank their blood. Judaism has always been against human sacrifice but the Crucifixion and Herod's slaying of the innocents (children) has prejudiced people. Stage Jews were often caricatures, being figures of fun and mischief. Marlowe's Jew of Malta was a hostile figure.

11. Venice was a fascinating place for Elizabethans. It was the port to the East. It was not ruled by a king but was an ancient republic, commercially hospitable to foreigners from east, west and north, Greek, Jew or Protestant. Built on islands it was unique and luxurious. Venice had a reputation of strictly enforcing law, even against Venetian citizens. Both London and Venice were capitals of marine insurance and venture capital.

13. As a society, Venice is more efficient and successful than Henry IV's England. Its citizens are better off, more secure and nicer mannered. Politically speaking, therefore, one may say that a mercantile society represents an advance upon a feudal society, as a feudal society represents an advance upon a tribal society. But every step forward brings with it its own dangers and evils for, the more advanced the social organization, the greater the moral demands it makes on its members... (Critical Essays: Auden 1991)

14. Jason and the Argonauts quested for the Golden Fleece and went through many perils but they won in the end. Obstacles that Jason faced included the Harpies, rocks that crashed together, bulls with feet made of sharp brass and fiery breath, and seeds that grew into fighting warriors.

Published on: 10 Dec 2010