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Harry Freedman

Shylock's Venice

Shylock's Venice

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The thrilling story of the Jews in Venice – and the truth behind one of Shakespeare's most famous characters.

Millions of visitors flood to Venice every year. Yet many are unaware of its history – one of dramatic expansion but also of rapid decline. And essential to any history of Venice during its glory days is the story of its Jewish population. Venice gave the world the word ghetto. Astonishingly, the ghetto prison turned out to be as remarkable a place as the city of Venice itself.

With sound scholarship and a narrator's skill, Harry Freedman tells the story of Venice's Jews. From the founding of the ghetto in 1516, to the capture of Venice by Napoleon in 1797, he describes the remarkable cultural renaissance that took place in the Venice ghetto. Gates and walls notwithstanding, for the first time in European history Jews and Christians mingled intellectually, learned from each other, shared ideas and entered modernity together. When it came to culture, the ghetto walls were porous.

Any history of Venice and its Jews also can't avoid the story of Shakespeare's Shylock. The cultural and political revival in the Venice ghetto is often obscured from history by this fictional character. Who, we wonder, was Shylock? Would the people of Venice have recognized him and what did Shakespeare really think of him? Shakespeare's ambivalent anti-Semitism reflects attitudes to Jews in Elizabethan England – but as Freedman demonstrates, Shakespeare's myth is wholly ignorant of the literary, cultural and interfaith revival that Shylock would have experienced.

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Harry Freedman is Britain's leading author of popular works of Jewish culture and history. His publications include The Talmud: A Biography, Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, The Murderous History of Bible Translations Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius and Britain's Jews. He has a PhD on an Aramaic translation of the Bible from University of London.

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