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Shylock's Sacred Nation


After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the late fifteenth century, European trading capitals such as Rome, Venice, Prague, and Amsterdam extended limited rights of residency and trading privileges to migrating Jews who promised to boost import and export duties in their host cities and to help establish peace between rival cities and nations. These Jewish trading “nations” engendered new intellectual debate among Christians redefining their own political and economic identities. Revising postcolonial and new historicist readings of the Jew the universal “other,” this essay shows how Marlowe’s Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice depict the Jew as a resident alien defining a new mercantile Europe. Instead of designating the Jew as a remnant of precapitalist and pre-Christian society, both plays stage the centrality of Jewish mercantile wealth to early modern political economy. Religious violence emerges in the wake of failed commercial relations in The Jew of Malta. Christian hypocrisy breeds Jewish revenge and subversion, as Barabas engages in increasingly outrageous plots of murder and deceit. Emphasizing the degree to which economic relationships embroil characters in legal, national, and personal relations, The Merchant of Venice invokes, only to criticize, a mercantile state that insists on purchasing power as a precondition for citizenship, one that reserves the right of private ownership to an elite class that benefits from the mercantile activities of a politically oppressed group.

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