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The role of prejudice in the merchant of venice


This paper discusses the subject of prejudice in the William Shakespeare

play, The Merchant of Venice.

I. Introduction

William Shakespeare's satirical comedy, The Merchant of Venice,

believed to have been written in 1596 was an examination of hatred and

greed. The premise deals with the antagonistic relationship between

Shylock, a Jewish money-lender and Antonio, the Christian merchant, who

is as generous as Shylock is greedy, particularly with his friend,

Bassanio. The two have cemented a history of personal insults, and

Shylock's loathing of Antonio intensifies when Antonio refuses to

collect interest on loans. Bassanio wishes to borrow 3,000 ducats from

Antonio so that he may journey to Belmont and ask the beautiful and

wealthy Portia to marry him. Antonio borrows the money from Shylock,

and knowing he will soon have several ships in port, agrees to part with

a pound of flesh if the loan is not repaid within three months.

Shylock's abhorrence of Antonio is further fueled by his daughter

Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, another friend of Antonio's.

Meanwhile, at Belmont, Portia is being courted by Bassanio, and

wedding plans continue when, in accordance with her father's will,

Bassanio is asked to choose from three caskets -- one gold, one silver

and one lead. Bassanio correctly selects the lead casket that contains

Portia's picture. The couple's joy is short-lived, however, when

Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio, informing him of the loss of

his ships and of Shylock's determination to carry out the terms of the

loan. Bassanio and Portia marry, as do his friend, Gratiano and

Portia's maid, Nerissa.

The men return to Venice, but are unable to assist Antonio in

court. In desperation, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and arrives

in Venice with her clerk (Nerissa) to argue the case. She reminds

Shylock that he can only collect the flesh that the agreement calls for,

and that if any blood is shed, his property will be confiscated. At

this point, Shylock agrees to accept the money instead of the flesh, but

the court punishes him for his greed by forcing him to become a

Christian and turn over half of his property to his estranged daughter,


II. Body

Prejudice is a dominant theme in The Merchant of Venice, most

notably taking the form of anti-semitism. Shylock is stereotypically

described as "costumed in a recognizably Jewish way in a long gown of

gabardine, probably black, with a red beard and/or wing like that of

Judas, and a hooked putty nose or bottle nose" (Charney, p. 41).

Shylock is a defensive character because society is constantly reminding

him he is different in religion, looks, and motivation. He finds solace

in the law because he, himself, is an outcast of society. Shylock is an

outsider who is not privy to the rights accorded to the citizens of

Venice. The Venetians regard Shylock as a capitalist motivated solely

by greed, while they saw themselves as Christian paragons of piety.

When Shylock considers taking Antonio's bond using his ships as

collateral, his bitterness is evident when he quips, "But ships are but

board, sailors but men. There be land rats and water rats, water

thieves and land thieves -- I mean pirates -- and then there is the

peril of waters, winds, and rocks" (I.iii.25). Shylock believes the

Venetians are hypocrites because of their slave ownership. The

Venetians justify their practice of slavery by saying simply, "The

slaves are ours" (IV.i.98-100). During the trial sequence, Shylock

persuasively argues, "You have among you many a purchased slave, which

(like your asses and your dogs and mules). You us in abject and in

slavish parts, because you bought them, shall I say to you, let them be

free, marry them to your heirs... you will answer, `The slaves are

ours,' -- so do I answer you: The pound of flesh (which I demand of

him) is dearly bought, 'tis mine and I will have it" (IV.i.90-100).

Shakespeare's depiction of the Venetians is paradoxical. They

are, too, a capitalist people and readily accept his money, however,

shun him personally. Like American society, 16th century Venice sought

to solidify their commercial reputation through integration, but at the

same time, practiced social exclusion. Though they extended their hands

to his Shylock's money, they turned their backs on him socially. When

Venetian merchants needed usurer capital to finance their business

ventures, Jews flocked to Venice in large numbers. By the early 1500s,

the influx of Jews posed a serious threat to the native population, such

that the Venetian government needed to confine the Jews to a specific

district. This district was called geto nuovo (New Foundry) and was the

ancestor of the modern-day ghetto. In this way, Venetians could still

accept Jewish money, but control their influence upon their way of life.

Antonio, though a main character in The Merchant of Venice remains

a rather ambiguous figure. Although he has many friends, he still

remains a solitary and somewhat melancholy figure. He is generous to a

fault with his friends, especially Bassanio, which lends itself to

speculation as to his sexuality. His perceived homosexuality makes him

somewhat of a pariah among his countrymen, much like Shylock. Shylock's

loathing of Antonio, he explains simply, "How like a fawning publican he

looks! I hate him for he is a Christian" (I.iii.38-39). Antonio holds

Shylock in the same contempt, trading barbs with him and spitting at

him. His contempt for shylock is further demonstrated when he addresses

Shylock in the third person, despite his presence. Antonio's prejudice

is clearly evident when he asks, "Is he yet possessed? (I.iii.61). The

word "possessed" is synonymous with the Devil in the Christian world.

In his mind, his greed and his Judaism are one, and because Shylock

lacks his (Antonio's) Christian sensibilities, he is therefore the

reincarnation of the Devil and the embodiment of all that is evil.

Images of a dog, which is coincidentally God spelled backwards, are

abound. Society must restrain the Jew because he is an untamed animal.

Shylock sees himself in society's eyes and muses, "Thou call'dst me a

dog before thou hadst a cause. But since I am a dog, beware my fangs

(III.iii.6-7)." When Antonio spits on Shylock in public, this is

perfectly acceptable behavior in a society where Jews are considered on

the same level as dogs. Antonio is presented as a "good" Christian who

ultimately shows mercy on his adversary, the "evil" Jew, Shylock. By

calling for Shylock's conversion to Christianity, Antonio is saving a

sinner's soul, and by embracing Christianity, he will be forced to

repent and mend his avarice ways.

Most of the women in The Merchant of Venice, true to the

Elizabethan time period, are little more than an attractive presence.

Despite their immortalization in art, Shakespeare, like his

contemporaries, appears to perceive women as little more than indulged

play things with little to offer society than physical beauty. Shylock

is devastated when his daughter leaves him to marry a Christian, he

regards her as little more than one of his possession, just has he

regards jewels and ducats. Portia, though possessing both strength and

intelligence, she, too, is inclined to prejudicial judgments. She takes

a distainful view of the lowly class, and dismisses the 3,000 ducats as

"a petty debt." Although she truly loves Bassanio in spite of his low

social rank, Bassanio is initially portrayed as a crass materialist who

regards Portia as little more than a prize to be won. Only by marrying

her can he achieve any kind of social nobility. Although Portia plays a

powerful role in the play's climax, she must disguise herself as a man

for her words to be taken seriously.

Racial prejudice is also hinted at in The Merchant of Venice. The

Prince of Morocco, though elegant in both manner and dress, has a

pomposity which perhaps stems from being a dark-skinned man not

altogether accepted in the predominantly white Christian surroundings.

The bias of the city-state ruler is evident when during the trial, the

Duke of Venice tells Shylock, "We all expect a gentle answer, Jew"

(IV.i.34). The implication is that Christians are the models of

gentility and social grace, whereas Jews are coarse in both manner and


Is Shylock really the epitome of evil? Over the years, the "pound

of flesh" phrase has been interpreted by both scholars and students

alike. Author W.H. Auden draws a similarity between Shylock's demand

for payment in a pound of flesh with the crucifixion of Christ. Auden

wrote, "Christ may substitute himself for man, but the debt has to be

paid by death on the cross. The devil is defeated, not because he has

no right to demand a penalty, but because he does not know the penalty

has been already suffered" (Auden, p. 227). Shylock regards Antonio as

his number one nemesis because of the countless public humiliations he

has subjected him to and because Antonio has purposely hindered his

business by refusing to collect interest on loans. Would Shylock have

demanded a pound of flesh from anyone else in the world but Antonio?

Does this make him a bad person or just a human one? By herding the

Jews like cattle into the confines of the New Foundry district, aren't

the Venetians symbolically extracting their own pound of flesh from the

Jewish people? Why is Shylock singled out for his behavior? Because he

is Jewish and therefore incapable of humanity in the eyes of the

Christian world?

III. Conclusion

Was William Shakespeare a bigot? His perceived anti-semitism in

The Merchant of Venice depicts the Elizabethan perception of Jews, a

people who were truly foreign to them in both appearance and demeanor.

Edward I banished Jews from his kingdom in the 11th century, however

Jewish stereotypes abound in England throughout the Renaissance.

Although the average Elizabethan had probably encountered only a few

Jews in his lifetime, his church sermons condemned them with words like

"blasphemous," "vain," and "deceitful." The Christians considered the

lending of money to be sacrilegious, but the using of this money to

finance their businesses was not. The Merchant in Venice is no more

anti-semitic than Christopher Marlowe's earlier play, The Jew of Malta.

The parallels between Marlowe's protagonist, Barabas, and Shylock are

startling. Marlowe's play begins with a description of Barabas "in his

counting-house, with heaps of gold before him," discussing with his

comrades his world of "infinite riches" (I.i.37). Barabas' self-serving

deception and superficiality are identical to Shylock's. Marlowe's

character, Ferneze acts as a self-appointed spokesman for the Christian

community when he dismisses Barabas and all Jews with the words, "No,

Jew, like infidels. For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,

who stand accursed in the sight of heaven" (I.ii.73-75). Couldn't

Antonio have uttered the same words to Shylock? Both authors were

products of the Elizabethan world in which they lived, and their

writings were bound to be a reflection of their times. Was Shakespeare

an anti-semitic personally, or was The Merchant of Venice a piece of

timely social commentary? This will be the fodder for much discussion

and argument for years to come. There must be a distinction between

Shakespeare the writer and Shakespeare the man, and while there may be

similarities, they should be regarded as two separate entities.

However, when one reads The Merchant of Venice and speeches illustrating

the hypocrisy that was so prevalent in Christian society, one can almost

sense Shakespeare is satirically winking at us. Though the world has

moved away from the rigid Elizabethan social convention, have times or

people really changed? The continued bloodshed in the Middle East, the

ongoing struggle for racial equality in Africa, religious strife in

Northern Ireland and the continued practice of genocide in the world

suggest otherwise. What about American society? The recent criminal

trial and subsequent not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson case show

that racial lines are still carefully drawn. Isn't O.J. Simpson

reminiscent of Shylock, an outcast in white, Beverly Hills social strata

in much the same way as Shylock was in Venice? His upbringing in the

slums of San Francisco made him as foreign to southern California

socialites as Shylock was to the Venetian bourgeoisie. Despite being

found not guilty by a jury of his peers, he has been ostracized by this

society nevertheless, and in establishments where his money was once

accepted, he, now is not. Pending the outcome of his civil trial, he

may lose his money and property as did Shylock. In The Merchant of

Venice, Shakespeare articulates the frustrations of the oppressed masses

for all time with the words of Shylock. "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not

a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions -- fed

with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same

diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter

and summer as a Christian is? If you pfick at us, do we not bleed? If

you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And

if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest,

we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his

humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his

sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you

teach me I will execute" (II.i.55-69). Quite simply, society teaches by



Auden, W.H. 1965. "Brothers and Others," The Dyer's Hands and Other

Essays. New York: Random House.

Charney, Maurice. 1993. All of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia

University Press.

Marlowe, Christopher. Ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin. 1976.

Drama of the English Renaissance I: The Tutor Period. New York:

Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

Shakespeare, William. Ed. Kenneth Myrick. 1965. The Merchant of Venice.

New York: Signet Books.

Source: Essay UK -

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