Merchant of Venice is a play with many connected themes and plots. One of the major themes of the play is prejudice. Prejudice takes place in all forms in The Merchant of Venice: against race, gender, religion and foreigners. For Shakespeare to write and identify all these prejudices at a time where it was not fully understood and it was like a part of life, shows that he is a master of writing plays. There were wars being fought and laws being passed for most of the prejudices listed above.
Most of the audience and people in that time, 1590s-1600s, would have been racist against at least one of the themes tackled by the play, and yet for Shakespeare to write a play about prejudice and changing the roles of certain characters, at the time would have been thought to be impossible. To fully understand the prejudice and the play one must understand the time in which it was written. The first act that shows prejudice is act 1 scene 2. Here we meet Portia and Nerrisa. Portia is complaining to Nerrisa about the way her suitors get picked.
Portia is the mistress of Belmont’s immense wealth. But ironically Portia’s freedom is limited. She has no control or choice of whom she gets to marry. Her future lies in the hands of the casket system put into place by her dead father. The casket system shows the unjust male power and control that men have over women in the patriarchal society.. Portia complains to Nerrisa and says ‘ O me, the word ‘choose! I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. This is a nightmare to every modern women. Portia then goes on to complain about each of the suitors.
Shakespeare does this to make the scene become humorous, as The Merchant Of Venice was seen as a comedy. Her comments on her suitors may evoke laughter within the audience, but she refers to them with damning scorn, and seems casually racist about their nationalities. Portia’s discrimination is hidden behind her comical stereotyping. Throughout the play she seems to not like foreigners. This is typical of all the Christians in the play, Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio e. . c. An example of her abhorrence is when Nerrisa asks her about the Duke of Saxony’s nephew, ‘Very vilely in the morning when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon when he is drunk’. Towards the end of the scene, she receives news that the Prince of Morocco is coming tomorrow.
Before she even sees him, she dismisses even wanting to marry him due to where he is from and to his colour. Her response suggests that prejudice and bigotry lie beneath the outwardly fair appearance of Portia and Belmont. If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me. ‘ Shylock is an orthodox Jew, this means that he is Jewish by both race and religion. This means that he is open to double the hatred. We first encounter Shylock in act 1 scene 3. Straight away we are told that he is a Jew. ‘Enter Bassanio with Shylock the Jew’, why wasn’t ‘Enter Bassanio the Christian with Shylock the Jew’ written. Shakespeare purposefully put this to show that shylock was not a normal person, he is Jewish this makes the audience in 1597 straight away hate him and notice him.
For today’s readers or audience it shows them that he is going to be one of the main parts of the play and explains to them that he is Jewish and that is why everyone mocks him. By the way in the plays, he would have been dressed as a Jew i. e. the long beard and the hat. I believe that Shakespeare has purposefully juxtaposed this scene with the previous scene, after Portia describes the Prince of Morocco as having the ‘complexion of a devil’ and with the opening of scene three with shylock, (an ugly Jew) entering. As soon as the scene starts Bassanio and Shylock are involved in a tense conversation.
By it being tense we can see that they both hate each other. There has to be two parties for racism to happen. Shylocks repetition of ‘Well’ shows that he is trying to annoy Bassanio. Shylock understands that he has got a rare moment of superiority and wants to capitalise on it by annoying Bassanio and making him beg for longer. He loves having the Christians wanting something from him and as if they are begging him. Bassanio’s frustrated questions convey his dislike of Shylock and the awkwardness he feels as a Christian having to ask a Jew for money. The Venetian Society is clearly hypocritical at the time of the play.
Bassanio despises Shylock but will use the Jews money to fund his expedition. As Antonio enters Shylock’s soliloquy shows why he hates Antonio and other Christians so much. One should note that in those days, 1590s, Christians were not allowed to charge interest. ‘How like a fawning publican he looks! / I hate him for he is a Christian;/But more, for that in low simplicity/He lends money gratis, and brings down/ The rate of usance here with us in Venice. / If I can catch him once upon the hip,/I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. ‘ This soliloquy make the audience hate Shylock and fear for poor Antonio’s future.
Towards the end of the scene Antonio says, ‘Hie thee gentle jew. This Hebrew will turn Christian’, although Shylock was only acting to be nice but had a motive behind it. At the end of this scene the audience thinks the worst of Shylock. He is callous, vengeful and vindictive but does have some points of justice. Straight after this scene we return to the dark skinned Moroccan prince. Straight away he says: ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’. He is basically saying do not hate me because I am dark skinned. The reason for his self-justification of his colour suggests that maybe that is what he is used to and expects.
Or that Belmont has a reputation for intolerance and rejection of suitors who are dark skinned. Portia is also a victim of male chauvinism. She cannot even choose her own husband. Her personal choice has been replaced by ‘the lottery of my destiny’. But she does not show her real feelings and remains courteous, because she is a lady with a high position and it would be inappropriate if she mocked the Prince. ‘Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair/As any comer I have looked on yet/ For my affection’. The language Shakespeare gives the prince is very stereotypical of foreigners in the 1590s.
Elizabethan audiences find this amusing and enjoy laughing at stereotypes; in act 1 scene 2 the audience was given some comedy through the stereotypes of the foreign suitors. Shakespeare makes the Prince of Morocco look very arrogant through the language he uses. It is his prevailing hyperbolic terms, which convey his arrogance. Act 2 Scene 2, is one of the less important scenes of the play. It is made to make the audience laugh. It includes some of the lesser important characters, in fact the lowest ranking characters of the play, Lancelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo.
This scene has some parts which show Venetian racism. Even the lowest of all characters mock Shylock. It seems that no one in the whole play, apart from Tubal, likes Shylock. Why should they if he is such an evil character. In Lancelot Gobbo’s speech he never uses Shylock’s name, but calls him ‘the Jew’. I believe this to be a term of insult against Shylock, people shouldn’t regard others by their race. Lancelot wants to leave Shylock but tossing between the ideas. He calls shylock a devil, which shows the casual Venetian racism. ‘Is a kind of devil… the Jew is the very devil incarnation’.
The audience would have found this funny as most of them would of not liked Jews anyway. Again, he later mocks Shylock. ‘My master’s a very Jew… I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer’. Jessica, who gives a depressing picture of life at Shylock’s residence, confirms Lancelot’s earlier criticism of Shylock’s home. Only Lancelot’s constant joking lightens its gloom. ‘Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil/Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness’. This short scene is dramatically important because it reveals that Shylock is becoming more isolated, rejected even by his own daughter.
Even Lancelot shows more love to Jessica then Shylock so she does have some right to complain. Although I do not know why she does not get as much criticism as her father. She is jewish as well, but maybe because she hates her father so much and looks like she is going to change religion, that the Christiens like her, apart from Portia. In Shakespeare’s time turning Christian from Jewish was seen as a good thing. Many Jews pretended to turn Christian so that they could be accepted, and in the case of 1290, so they could stay in the country.
In act 2 scene 4, Lorenzo shows his contempt for Shylock and his race and highlights this in his speech. ‘If e’er the Jew her father come to heaven,/It will be for his gentle daughter’s sake’. Notice his use of the word ‘gentle’ this word is similar to Gentile, which means a person who is not Jewish, this maybe prophesising that Jessica is going to turn Christian. In Act 2 Scene 5, we see Shylock being racist. One part of the scene sums up the racism. I believe that one of Shylocks hates of the Christians is because they spend freely and don’t care about keeping money. He probably wants the Christians to be as stingy as him.
This point is shown on line 21. ‘Yet I’ll go in hate to feed upon the prodigal Christian’. However towards the end of this speech I believe Shakespeare was overtly anti-semitic. It makes Shylock look like the stereotypical money-obsessed Jew with no feelings. The final lines of act 2 scene 7, show Portia’s severe hatred of outsiders. In the penultimate line she says, ‘A gentle riddance draw the curtains go’. She is barely able to contain her contempt. The fact that she says ‘ a gentle riddance’, shows that she is glad that he is leaving. In her final line her racism comes to light in all its strength. Let all of his complexion choose me so’.
If we compare the Prince of Morocco’s departure with the departure of The Prince of Arragon, we see that Portia does not treat the Princes the same. She is racist against Morocco and really hates him. But she only ridicules Arragon, and has a joke with Nerrisa about him, calling him an insect. ‘Thus hath the candle singed the moth’. The previous scene closed with one loser, Morocco. Now Scene 8 opens with the report of another loser Shylock. Solanio and Salarino, tell the audience of how Shylock responded to the loss of all his possessions.
Once again, Shylock is not named. He is described as ‘the villain Jew’ and ‘the dog Jew’. Solanio and Salarino are depicting his losses unsympathetically. Solanio starts imitating Shylock and mocks the way that he complains about his stolen riches just as much as his eloped daughter. This hints to the audience that Shylock is more concerned for his riches and angry at his daughter for stealing them. ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! /Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! ‘ Some of his anger may have been due to him knowing that his riches are in the possession of a Christian.
Once Jessica marries Lorenzo, her money will become Lorenzo’s property. Again this shows the iniquitous male dominance in a patriarchal society. Salarino adds on extra details about Shylocks misery. He tells Solanio that even the young children delight in his losses. ‘Why all the boys in Venice follow him,/Crying his stones, his daughter and his ducats’. To a modern audience, this is when they first start feeling pity for Shylock. Solanio and Salarino are bullying Shylock just because of his race. It is amazing how Shakespeare wants the audience to feel sorry for Shylock during a time of mass prejudice against Jews.
But then comes news of a supposed shipwreck in the English Channel. They do not know whether it is Antonio’s or not. Antonio has suffered a loss as well as Shylock. But Solanio and Salarino do not mock Antonio, and show affection towards his losses. Shakespeare purposefully done this to show the extent of their racism. They will mourn the losses of a fellow Christian and laugh and mock the losses of a Jew or an Outsider. At the end of this act Shylock is becoming increasingly isolated. Act 3 Scene 1, is full of racial tension. Shylock is now very isolated.
His language shows him to be hurt, humiliated, vulnerable and extremely angry at the Christians. He feels that he has been played for a fool and robbed of all his possessions by the Christians. He is very angry at the Christians and wants revenge. The Christians in this scene, Solanio and Salarino are also angry with him. They received bad news about Antonio’s ships. One of his ships has been lost on the Goodwin sands. At the beginning of the scene, their tone of conversation is full of warmth for ‘the good Antonio, the honest Antonio’, but they express foreboding for his future.
Neither of them mention Shylock, but it is obvious that he is playing in the back of their minds. But as soon as Solanio sees Shylock, he makes his feelings evident. ‘Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer,/for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew’. Shylock suspects that the two Christians are part of the conspiracy that organised Jessica’s elopement. Both parties are now very angry at each other. Solanio and Salarino start to “bully” Shylock. They taunt him, utterly unsympathetic to the acute pain he feels at the loss of his daughter and money. ‘There is more difference between thy flesh and/hers’.
As soon as the subject turns to Antonio’s losses, Shylock finds his revenge closening. He tells of his hatred against Antonio. ‘He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million’. He carries on talking about Antonio. It presents Antonio as forcefully seizing every occasion to revile and obstruct him. ‘And what’s his reason? ‘, Shylock asks a rhetorical question. His reply is the best lines of this whole play. It is now used all over the world because of its truth and justification of race. ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses 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? ‘ Shylock’s plea is extremely heartfelt and deeply moving. It is so simple yet so effective. He is basically saying that all human beings share characteristics which make them human. Shakespeare done this to evoke deeply felt audience sympathy for Shylock. Shylock’s decision to persue his revenge becomes absolute. He has learnt from Christian example: ‘The villainy you teach me I will execute’.
That Christian contempt for Jews is once again made evident when Tubal arrives. ‘Here comes another of the tribe’. When Tubal comes he tells him of what he has found out about Jessica. Shylock has an outburst and it portrays him as being a stereotypical money obsessed Jew. The audience, in the 1590s, would have found this rather funny. ‘And the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot’. But Shylock is not all evil, Jessica sold a ring that belonged to her mother for a monkey. The ring had a sentimental value to Shylock and he cannot believe what his daughter has done.
I had it of Leah when I was a batchelor’. In act 3 scene 2, the casket system is denying Portia to choose her true love, Bassanio. She wants to marry him but cant because of her fathers unjust casket system. Her love is evident in the first line where she wants him to stay instead of making the choice quickly. ‘I pray you tarry, pause a day or two’. She wants to enjoy his company. Before Portia got married to Bassanio, she was extremely assertive, i. e. she took care of herself and did not let any one boss her around. But as soon as she gets married, she becomes submissive.
Bassanio takes control of all her wealth. ‘This house, these servants, and this same myself/Are yours, my lord’s’. She has given everything to Bassanio. This always happened in the Elizabethan era. As soon as the woman got married all her royalties become the husbands. This again shows the unfair power and respect that men have over women. Women seem to have no rights at all. In act 3 scene 3, Shylock got Antonio jailed and is getting his revenge for all the years of abuse e. t. c. ‘Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,/But since I am a dog, beware my fangs’.
Antonio has no hope, even the Duke of Venice cannot save him, because the law must be followed if Venice were to maintain the trust of foreign traders. In act 3 scene 4, Portia and Nerissa decide to dress as men. They are doing this so that they can go to the trial. I believe that the only way they would be taken seriously is if they dress up as men. This again shows that women are not taken at all seriously and do not belong in serious places. ‘We’ll se our husbands/Before they think of us! ‘ Act 3 scene 5, is a short scene but still has a significant part.
It shows how casual racism was so normal and is sometimes used to make jokes by the Elizabethan Christians towards Jews. For example, when Jessica tells Lancelot that she has converted to become Christian, Lancelot adds a racist joke, so that the audience can laugh. ‘This making of Christians/will raise the price of hogs’. Act 4 scene 1, is the trial that Shylock has been waiting for. The Duke of Venice is supposed to be unbiased, but still shows conventional Christian hostility towards Shylock. ‘A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch’. But the duke shows warmth and sympathy to Antonio. ‘I am sorry for thee’.
It is not the first time in the play that Shylock is totally stripped of all his rights. Shakespeare gives Antonio some lines which make the audience feel even more sympathy towards him. ‘To suffer the quietness of spirit/The very tyranny and rage of his’. Shylock is continually threatened, the Duke tries to hide his threats, but they are obvious to the audience. ‘We all expect a gentle answer, Jew’. This is what the Duke said after he asked Shylock to have some pity for poor Antonio the Christian. Shylock disagrees and carries on wanting Antonio’s flesh, like a ‘dog’. Antonio always called him a ‘dog’ and now the ‘dog’ wants revenge.
So can I give no reason, nor I will not/More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing/I bear Antonio’. The audience now really hate Shylock increasing the tension within the theatre. Bassanio tries to protect his good friend by angrily declaring that this was no answer to excuse his cruelty. But Antonio stops him and produces another racist remark. He says that it is impossible to change Shylocks mind. This makes the audience favour Antonio even more because they want someone to be mean to Shylock. ‘ Than which what’s harder:/His Jewish heart’. Later on in this scene Nerissa, disguised as a clerk, comes and brings news from Padua.
Shylock starts sharpening his knife on his shoe. Gratiano lashes out in anger and again racially abuses Shylock. ‘O be thou damned, inexecrable dog’. Bassanio starts to offer 6000 ducats, to Shylock. Shylock declines the offer and demands his rights. Shylock probably now feels that he has a superior position, like he did in act 1 scene 3. Everyone is trying to resolve the bond, and Shylock looks like he is going to get his way. But suddenly Portia reads the letter and says that he cannot take more then a pound or less and a single drop of blood will result in all his riches being confiscated. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood’.
Gratiano seizes the opportunity to mockingly imitate all of Shylock’s previous praise of Portia. His racism is very evident: ‘O Jew, an upright judge, a learned judge! ‘ Shylock has all his wealth confiscated, half going to Antonio and half going to the state. The Duke pardons him and Antonio allows him to retain a half but the half must eventually go to Lorenzo and Jessica. But Antonio has one more condition. Shylock must turn Christian. This would have been deeply offensive to Shylock but he is forced to agree. Shylock is left to leave he stage humiliated.
Shylock has become a victim of an extreme form of racism. He has lost all of his wealth and is forced to turn Christian. The whole courtroom was against him because of his race. Gratiano’s mockery shows all too clearly the anti-Semitism that plagued the trial and the whole play. Through out the play we encounter different prejudices. Merchant of Venice is known to be a comedy. But beneath the comedy lies the murky world of racism, sexism e. t. c. Shakespeare has done extremely well with the Merchant Of Venice. We know that Shakespeare was influenced by the society of his time.
Therefore, the issues tackled by Shakespeare give us an insight into what it was like to be a woman or a Jew or a foreigner in the Elizabethan era. Some people have complained bout teaching the book for GCSE, but if we do not learn about racism and see the effects it has on the particular race then how are we meant to know how racism affects people. Shakespeare changed the mood of the audience throughout the play. For example with Shylock, we first liked him, then hated him, then liked him and then hated him. I believe that Shakespeare wrote this play to make people stop being racist towards jews at the time.