As I think it
extremely questionable whether I could get through a chapter on this subject without some
feeble pleasantry on Shylock, and whether, if I did, the reader would be at all satisfied
that I had treated the matter fully and fairly, I say at the beginning that Shylock is
dead; that, if he lived, Antonio would hardly spit upon his gorgeous pantaloons or his
Parisian coat, as he met him on the Rialto; that he would far rather call out Christians,
and later a yellow cap, then a red hat, and then a hat of oil-cloth.
They [the Jews] could not acquire houses or lands in Venice, nor
practice any trades, nor exercise any noble art but medicine. They were assigned a
dwelling place in the vilest and unhealthiest parts of the city, and their quarter was
called Ghetto, from the Hebrew nghedah, a congregation.
They were obliged to pay their landlords a third more rent than
Christians paid; the ghetto was walled in, and its gates were kept by Christian guards,
who every day opened them at dawn and closed them at dark, and who were paid by the Jews.
They were not allowed to issue at all from the Ghetto on holidays, and
two barges, with armed men, watched over them night and day, while a special magistracy
had charge of their affairs. Their synogogues were built at Mestre, on the mainland, and
their dead were buried on the sand upon the sea-shore, whither, on the Mondays of
September, the baser sort of Venetians went to make merry, and drunken men and women
danced above their desecrated tombs.
These unhappy people were forced also to pay tribute to the state, at
first every third year, then every fifth year, and then every tenth year, the privilege of
residence being ingeniously renewed to them at these periods for a round sum; but, in
spite of all, they flourished upon the waste and wickedness of their oppressors, waxed
rich as these waxed poor, and were not again expelled from the city.
There never was
any attempt to disturb the Hebrews by violence, except on one occasion, about the close of
the Fifteenth Century, when a tumult was raised agaist them for child-murder. This,
however, was promptly quelled by the Republic before any harm was done them; and they
dwelt peacefully in their Ghetto till the lofty gates of their prison caught the sunlight
of modern civilization, and crumbled beneath it.
Then many of the Jews came forth and fixed their habitations in
different parts of the city, but many others clung to the spot where their temples still
remain, and which was was hallowed by long suffering, and soaked with the blood of
innumerable generations of geese. So, although you find Jews everywhere in Venice, you
never find a Christian in the Ghetto, which is held to this day by a large Hebrew
I do not understand why any class of Jews would still remain in the Ghetto, but it
is certain, as I said, that they do remain there in great numbers. It may be that the
impurity of the place and the atmosphere is conducive to purity of race; but I question if
the Jews buried on the sandy slope of the Lido, and blown over by the sweet sea wind,--it
must needs blow many centuries to cleanse them of the Ghetto,--are not rather to be envied
by the inhabitants of those high dirty houses and low dirty lanes.
There was not a touch of anything wholesome, or pleasant, or attractive,
to relieve the noisomeness of the Ghetto to its visitors; and they applauded, with a
common voice, the neatness which had prompted Andrea the gondolier to roll up the carpet
from the floor of his gondola, and not to spread it again within the limits of that
In the good old times when pestilence avenged the poor and oppressed
upon their oppressors, what grim and dismal plagues may not have stalked by night and
noonday out of those hideous streets, and passed the marble bounds of patrician palaces,
and brought to the bedsides of the rich and proud the filthy misery of the Ghetto turned
Thank God that the good old times are going and gone! One learns in
these aged lands to hate and execrate the past.