Jewish communities were first established in England with the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Although Jews soon began to play key roles in English economic development and flourished as doctors and tradesmen, they could not escape the rampant anti-Semitism that swept Europe. Jews were subjected to vicious persecutions, including charges of the ritual sacrifice of Christian children, which culminated with their expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. The exile lasted until 1655, when Jewish scholar Manasseh ben Israel obtained Oliver Cromwell’s approval for Jews to return to London. Thus, the Elizabethan people - Shakespeare included - knew little about Jews, other than the false information handed down through years of propaganda.
Some people feel that Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) is a static, villainous Jew no different from the stock Jewish characters in other works of the day, such as Marlowe'sThe Jew of Malta. Others believe that Shakespeare rises above the bigotry of his times, pleading for religious tolerance through Shylock's famous speech: "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?" (3.1.62-73). However, as Evangeline O'Connor eloquently explains, the speech is simply not good enough:
[Shylock's] impassioned appeal in the first scene of the third act, "Hath not a Jew eyes," etc., is the only place where Shakespeare seems to intend arousing the least sympathy for the usurer. In all other scenes his meanness and avarice are dwelt upon almost to the exclusion of his justifiable resentment at the insults to his race. He hates Antonio more for spoiling his business than for reviling his religion; and he would gladly see his only child dead before him if he might regain his ducats. There seems to be no reason to believe that Shakespeare intended any rebuke to the Jew-hating spirit of his time (An Index to the Works of Shakespere, 324).