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What follows, and up to enough preamble, is an introduction to the lecture that took place at the Jewish Historical Mueum in Amsterdam on 31st March on behalf of the Menasseh Ben Israel Institute.

‘Surely one of the best-known titles in Western literature is Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And to associate that title with Jews in general and with Shylock specifically should not raise any eye-brows. Certainly, Shylock is a major character in the play, if not, indeed, its major character.

However, he is not the title character of the play. Shakespeare intended the merchant of Venice to be Antonio, not Shylock. Yet from a historical perspective rather than from a literary one, the association of the designation of a merchant of Venice with a Jew as well as with a native Christian has some validity.

Remarkably, at the time that Shakespeare wrote his play (1596), the role of the co-religionists and co-citizens of the Christian Venetian noble, Antonio, in Venetian maritime commerce, which had made Venice the greatest and wealthiest European emporium of the times, was declining, while that of Jewish merchants, Shylock’s co-religionists, was on the rise.

I propose to start my talk with a few brief comments on the play itself and demonstrate that Shakespeare was not aware of the actual status of the Jews of Venice. Next, I will explain the origins of the ghetto of Venice and the position of the Jewish moneylenders in Venice around the time that Shakespeare wrote the play.

Then I will reconstruct the process by which considerations of raison d’ état led the Venetian government to grant unique privileges to Jewish merchants and even to defy the papacy by allowing crypto-Jewish merchants from the Iberian peninsula to revert to Judaism freely on condition that they resided in the ghetto.’

Here is a partial CV:
Benjamin Ravid is Jennie and Mayer Weisman Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and former Chair of that Department (1989-92).

Prof. Ravid is the author of Economics and Toleration in Seventeenth Century Venice and over thirty-five articles on the Jews of Venice; he has also co-edited The Jews of Early Modern Venice and contributed historical notes to the English translation of The Life of Judah, the autobiography of the seventeenth century Venetian Rabbi, Leon Modena.

A volume of his selected articles on the Jews of Venice, Studies on the Jews of Venice, 1382-1797, was published by Variorum Reprints in fall 2003. Currently, Prof. Ravid is engaged in research on the Jewish merchants and moneylenders of Venice and the institution of the ghetto.

Enough preamble and call to authority:

And this dear readers was a fantastic lecture on the rise of jewish mercantilism in Venice around 1595 when Shakespeare would have been researching and writing his play. The professor believes the Merchant of Venice was written by a benign Shakespeare who never visited Venice. He compared Shakey’s view of the Jews with Marlowe’s portrayal of Barrabas, finding Shylock more subtly drawn as a character.

Further he stressed the distinction between historical reality and dramatic fiction. The Jewish merchants of Venice were not bankers per se but rather pawnbrokers and money lenders. They could lend a maximum of only 3 ducats at 5% interest. Shylock could never have made the deal he did of 3,000 ducats. As for Othello, professor Ravid stated he would have been strung up on a column for daring to think he could marry Desdemona.

Professor Ravid’s lecture had a number of funny highlights:

The first was when the richie rich kid sat next to wide bright braces older brother and corduroyed papa filthy rich cracked up at the eminence-grise professor’s computer projection reminding him to install new software.

The other in the Q and A session interrupted by the museum’s closing announcement in four languages, Herr professor being re-interrupted in German as he tried to start his point again for the third time.

As for myself, I wish the lecture hadn’t ended after an hour and a half and the Q and A session after a short fifteen minutes.

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