Member Reviews


This was a very enjoyable and informative historical study of life in the Venice Ghetto from the 15th century to the present. The Ghetto, the first and the origin of the term itself, was in many ways an open air prison for Venetian Jewish people. All Jews were made to live in this designated area, free to leave during the day to conduct business, shop, and socialize. But at night, gates were locked and all must be back within the Ghetto until morning.

Venice enjoyed an independent relationship from Rome, its government structure consisting of the Doge, or head, and various other ruling bodies. Signoria, Grand Counsil, Senate, Quarantia, and Counsil of Ten all presided over various aspects of Venetian life. They were responsible for the ever changing rules and laws regarding residence and trade standards regarding Jewish participation. It was considered a constant battle between confinement and usefulness.

Due to restrictions on Christians on money lending, the Jewish residents provided this much needed service to the whole of Venice. Pawn and resale businesses, as well as a flourishing printing business were also essential to Venetian life. Entertainment, arts, music and plays enriched the city as well. Religious studies, Kabbalah, magic and occult all had a presence in the Ghetto.

The book makes many references and comparisons to Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. It is also full of many historical stories, regarding the rich intellectual and religious life within the Jewish community. Everyday life in the ghetto is also described in wonderful detail. Although mostly poor, crowded, and less than sanitary, the life within the Ghetto had a very rich and vibrant history. The liberal nature of Venice society and leniency in law enforcement in its treatment of Jews made for a comparatively more fertile environment for growth and expression.

This was a fascinating historical study, especially if you love Venice. The influence of the Jewish Ghetto on the cultural and social life in Venice and throughout Europe is really interesting to learn. I would like to thank NetGalley, Harry Freedman, and Bloomsbury Publishing for the opportunity to read and review this book.

Extensive notes, bibliography, and index.

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I found “Shylock’s Venice” to be both accessible and engaging. I went into this book with very basic prior knowledge of medieval Venice and found that the author did an excellent job managing the narrative to account for a variety of knowledge levels. However, if you don’t have prior knowledge of either “The Merchant of Venice” or the time period I’d recommend at least reading a synopsis of the play and a quick summary of Venetian history. The author explains everything so well that nothing is confusing but I think a little background knowledge would broaden one’s enjoyment of the book.

The author expertly contextualizes not only the Venetian Jewish experience in the late medieval and early modern period but also that of the Venice city-state in the larger geopolitical and religious arenas in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, I found the inclusion of Shakespearean scholarship insightful. This inclusion allowed the narrative to range from what life was like in the Venetian ghetto to Shakespeare’s possible real life inspiration for Shylock to what the “Merchant of Venice” reveals about Jewish and Christian interaction in early modern England. The many different threads are deftly handled. The narrative never lags and I enjoyed “meeting” the many prominent residents of the ghetto while following the history of the city.

“Shylock’s Venice” is an in intriguing and insightful exploration of Jewish life in late medieval and early modern Venice and a book that I would highly recommend.

Thanks so much to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Continuum for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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"Shylock's Venice" is a study of the Jewish ghetto, from its founding in 1516 to the fall of Venice in 1797. Existence was a constant battle against Christian intolerance, threats of expulsion, false accusations, enforced control and heavy taxation. The earliest Jews were the Tedeschi, permitted only to live in Mestre on the western bank. In 1516 the Council of Ten forcefully confined them to a former copper foundry, thus giving the world the word "ghetto" in the "Ghetto Nuovo." Despite severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, an autonomous society and an impressive Renaissance emerged. As a result, Christian Hebraists, curious philosophers and desperate politicians flocked to Venice for the best rabbinical insights, interpretations and advice. Shylock's Venice features many of ghetto's best and brightest, their trials and tribulations all fascinating and easily flowing from one to the next.

An otherwise excellent read, my only issue is with the premise. Chronologically, it's far beyond Shylock's "lifetime" and the character is discussed only briefly and intermittently. Even when he is mentioned, the author's points are a bit of a stretch. For example, Freedman argues that the kabbalistic principles, found in the Venetian "De Harmonia Mundi" can be allegorically drawn from The Merchant of Venice. But with no mention that Shakespeare ever owned or even read the work, it was weak link that only disrupted the narrative. However, if you've read the play, you'll know that Shylock, even as a stereotyped villain, faces mockery and forced conversion from a self-righteous jury. It's not a happy ending, as many Jews were compelled to convert to avoid brutal punishment or banishment. In this context at least, Shylock does represent the struggle of poor Jews trying to survive in and outside the Venetian ghetto. So, if you're seeking "the truth behind one of Shakespeare's most famous characters," I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. However, if you're interested in the history of the first 200 years of the Venetian ghetto, I highly recommend it!

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Princess Fuzzypants here: This is an interesting book on several levels. It describes what life was like for Jews not just in Venice but throughout the world and not just in the time of Shylock but historically. Whilst the description of Venetian life in the ghetto (where the word originated) was horrible, compared to the rest of Christendom, it was a treat. I would like to say this was but a blip but this was common place throughout the world. At least in Venice, even if they were often threatened and taxed to the hilt, they at least had some autonomy and their culture as well as religion was allowed to grow. They became the centre of Jewish Renaissance, a role they would continue to play for a long time.

As far as the title goes, Shylock has often been viewed as being an anti-Semitic character as has the play. The author makes a solid argument that considering the time, Shakespeare was, perhaps, more kindly disposed the Jews than the average person. It certainly has made me rethink my own opinions about the play and cannot wait to see it again in this new light. It also made me revisit my trips to Venice as I would like to walk through the areas again and look at them with open eyes.

One would hope in this supposedly enlightened age the various aspersions that have been flaunted about Jews for millenia would be a thing of the past. One would hope. But sadly, the very same hateful garbage is still bandied about. It does put things into perspective. Five purrs and two paws up.

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Does Shakespeare's Shylock, as portrayed in The Merchant of Venice, live up to the actual history? Harry Freedman latest book of popular history puts Shylock in pride of place in the title, but the focus is on the Jewish residents of Venice from the founding of the Ghetto in 1516 to the dissolution of the Venice Republic in 1798. Freedman looks at daily life, economics, cultural life and the constant tension of tolerance and the threat of exclusion.

Freedman argues in the introduction that the conditions and possibilities of Venice makes it the starting point of the Jewish enlightenment, not as is traditionally argued, in Germany in the 18th century. This key point is revisited throughout the work showing how the residents of the ghetto grew to live and work beyond its walls. There is some discussion of the plays of Shakespeare and possible or likely influences, but the history of Jews in Venice is the focus.

Venice was not alone in confining Jews to a specific part of the city, or having people of a certain region confined to a single section of the city. Due to religious convictions of the time christian were not able to lend money and charge interest, giving Jews the chance to eke out a profession as money lenders, or pawnshop owners. In Venice, this became the key business, even though Jews had to pay a fee for this privilege. The demands and control of money frequently being how a country is run or administered.

Freedman divides the narrative in to eleven chapters, presenting a survey history of Jewish life in Venice, focusing on key events, figures and developments. Through these topics Freedman explores the importance of printing especially as as an employer, waning power of the Venetian Empire and the artistic and social life of Venice. Readers might find it helpful to read a general work on Venice such as Giovanni Vale et als, Republic of Venice.

It is a focused work that illuminates the Jewish history of Venice and will be enjoyed by readers of the history of printing, history of Judaism or European history.

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This book unveils the rich, often-overlooked history of Venice’s Jewish community, whose name for their segregated quarters, “ghetto,” echoed across the world. Within those confining walls, a remarkable cultural renaissance blossomed, mirroring the city’s evolution. From 1516 to 1798, Venetian Jews and Christians transcended physical barriers, exchanging ideas and forging an intellectual symbiosis that propelled both communities toward the modern age.

Combining history, biography, and art, this book entertains while it informs. I enjoyed the stories of the people who lived in the ghetto, as well as the exploration of how Shakespeare’s play reflected and transcended the attitudes toward Jews in Elizabethan England.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

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I loved this book. I found it very informative, with a conversational tone and clear wording. It is well-researched and documented. The book doesn’t get lost in the details and is more than just names, places, and dates. Freedman accomplished this by telling the history through the biographies of key figures in the ghetto. I also enjoyed the discussion surrounding “The Merchant of Venice”. Overall this is a great read. Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Continuum for the digital review copy.

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Just like everywhere in Europe during this time period (after 1500) the Jews of the Ghetto in Venice suffered the same discrimination for most years with periods of tolerance. Especially right after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, Jews were looking for someplace to live. For many who had commercial ties to the city, they were able to be given temporary status to live there. They were mostly only allowed to be pedlars of second hand clothing and pawnbrokers (money lenders).

The area in which the Jews were allowed to live would be locked up each night and there were penalties for any of them found outside after lock-up. So small was the Ghetto that people were forced to live multiple families to an apartment and to build structures that were five of six stories. This was the realities for the Jews of Venice until they were freed at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Napoleon.

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Shylocks Venice”
Thank you Net Gallery, Author Harry Freedman and Publisher Bloombury Continuum.

This is a very-well researched history of The Venice Ghetto with a cast of true individuals and groups who interacted in many ways and at many levels. Forbidden to live among Venice’s Christian population the Jews who had been expelled en masse from Spain sought safe haven. Jews developed a highly intricate and ongoing society that, despite cruel religious prejudice, enabled them to become very essential to the social, financial, academic and progress of Italy’s star city. Of course, the portrayal of Shakespeare’s “Shylock” is explored several times as is the hypocrisy and overall fiscal concerns of the church and the city rulers. Rather than a general explanation the author presents the specific names and detailed careers of leading Jews and their ability to maneuver successfully within a dangerous European state.The amount of information is always impressive, but the author’s descriptions and explanations are too often presented in dry, academic writing. I would recommend this book for history buffs, but not for those looking for an enjoyable read.
On sale April 09,2024

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