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,

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 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