The Role of Prejudice in \'The Merchant of Venice\'


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,
Jessica.
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,