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.
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,
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
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
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.