I really don’t want to get into the question of whether or not The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play (at least not at the moment). But I think it’s safe to say that the Venice of the play is a very anti-Semitic place.
When Shylock begins to tell Bassanio and Antonio a Biblical tale, Antonio interrupts,
Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
Even if Antonio is not saying that Shylock is the devil (though I think he probably is), the comparison is certainly there. If we want to cast aside his words, we have his admitted actions as well–Shylock describes their shared past:
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
You ... did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold
— I.iii.108-109, 114-116
Antonio has spat on Shylock for his Jewishness (why else the juxtaposition of “misbeliever” and “spit upon my Jewish gaberdine”?), and not just on Shylock’s clothes but on his face (“my beard”), as well. It is not like Antonio is repentant–far from it, as he admits, “I am as like to call thee so again, // To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (I.iii.127-128). Antonio has no problem with this, and he is never taken to task for it by any character in the play (save for Shylock himself). This sort of anti-Semiticism must be common practice in the Venice of the play.
If we need more proof, let’s look at the words of another of Venice’s inhabitants, Gratiano. After he has proclaimed his love for Nerissa–and, I’d argue, by doing so, made him a good Christian man–he says of Lorenzo and Jessica’s arrival, “But who comes here? Lorenzo and his infidel?” (III.ii.218). Jessica is not deserving of a name, because she is “one who does not believe in (what the speaker holds to be) the true religion; an ‘unbeliever’”… but even worse than that, “an adherent of a religion opposed to Christianity; esp. a Muhammadan, a Saracen (the earliest sense in Eng.); also (more rarely), applied to a Jew” (both Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]). Because she is a Jew, she is as bad as a Muslim, as far as the good Christian Gratiano is concerned, and therefore needs no name. And no one in the scene acts as if this is a bad thing.
Yet it is, and Venice is a bad place for being peopled with such folk.
maybe I HAVE strayed into overall play discussion, after all…