What The Merchant of Venice tells us about racism and prejudice

This is a particularly uncomfortable time to be re-reading The Merchant of Venice.

Yet, with the social fracturing, racial divides and geopolitical strife that dominate our world today, there is perhaps no better time than now to revisit this play. 

jace-afsoon-eu6UE9Y1JEI-unsplash

Merchant is most famous for being Shakespeare’s ‘Antisemitic’ play (or his play about Antisemitism, perspective depending), and while this label is at best a crass generalisation, it’s definitely a relevant starting point for us to reflect on prejudice and racism, and specifically, on why and how they persist in human societies. 

If history has taught us anything, it is that all value systems change over time; and if literature has taught us much, it is that humans don’t always respond well to change.

The fear, ignorance, distrust, and inferiority that arise from seeing any sort of change or difference – whether it be social, economic, cultural or political – are endemic to all. It doesn’t matter if we’re white, black, yellow or brown, humans are reflexively wary of what’s different from themselves. 

Supposedly, education and exchange should help diminish wariness and increase receptivity, but even with 21st century levels of globalisation and cross-cultural contact, it seems that there’s still a lot more work to be done. 

While it’s certainly important to resist prejudice and racism, it’s equally worthwhile to consider why – despite decades of activism and awareness-raising – racial inequality persists. 

What Merchant of Venice wants us to ask about race

From the modern reader’s view, the key issue with Merchant of Venice is perhaps the way with which Shakespeare seems to normalise what we would nowadays call racist (specifically, antisemitic) behaviour through his negative characterisation of ‘the Jew’.

To most people, it would appear that the ‘heroes’ in the play are the white Christians who humiliate and discriminate against – in Salanio’s words – “the dog Jew”, while the ‘villain’ is Shylock, the Jewish usurer who makes a legal request for his bond to be fulfilled in a “pound of flesh”.

For this characterisation alone, Merchant is an emotionally difficult play to read and/or watch. 

Of course, that’s not to say Shakespeare himself endorsed racist behaviour (in fact that’s much evidence to the contrary), but the fact that he portrayed such dynamics in Renaissance Venice – an era when racism was so rampant and accepted – gives us much food for thought.

In the words of the eminent Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the Bard “wanted… to excite laughter at a wicked Jew’s discomfiture… in a play about money and love – [but] he wanted at the same time to call the laughter into question, to make the amusement excruciatingly uncomfortable.” 

For a 21st century audience, such discomfort would perhaps manifest itself in the questions that may arise after we watch the play.

For example, are racists necessarily evil people, despite their evil actions?

Do victims of racism – by virtue of being different – have to be extra cautious of their behaviour lest they be held to harsher social standards?

And are victims of racial targeting ever able to improve their own situation by amplifying their status of victimhood?

These are uncomfortable questions to ask, but important ones to address.

In an age where polarising, passion-driven rhetoric dominates social media discourse, it’s critical for us to acknowledge that while we may disagree, we should always seek to understand.

And this understanding is the first step to closing the prejudicial gap. 

merchant of venice
The 2004 film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice

Act 1: The problem of not seeing racial prejudice as a problem 

Prejudice manifests itself in many ways. The violent ones tend to get press coverage, and while the quiet ones don’t, they can be equally damaging. 

Among these ‘quiet’ types of racism is cultural insensitivity, which Bassanio shows towards Shylock in Act 1 Scene 3 – 

SHYLOCK

I will be assured I may; and, that I may be assured,
I will bethink me. May I speak with Antonio?

BASSANIO

If it please you to dine with us.

SHYLOCK

Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which
your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I
will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,
walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat
with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What
news on the Rialto? Who is he comes here?

Enter ANTONIO

On the surface, Bassanio seems friendly here. Why don’t you dine with us, he asks Shylock casually, where you can speak with Antonio about lending me three thousand ducats? 

The response he gets is one of disdain, and to a certain extent, of despair. Sure, Shylock replies sarcastically, except that you’ve probably forgotten that as a Jew*, I don’t eat pork, so thanks but no thanks.

This is because Jews observe the kosher dietary law of kashrut, which forbids the consumption of pork, what the Christian’s “prophet the Nazarite” – Jesus – had conjured the devil into”, echoing the Jewish belief in pigs as an ‘unclean’ food source. 

Shylock’s stance towards Bassanio and his fellow Christians is clear: I’ll be civil with you in trade and conversation, but we won’t be sitting at the same table or worshipping together.

So while Shylock’s spurn is less than cordial, it’s not an entirely inappropriate reaction to Bassanio’s cultural insensitivity, because such cultural ignorance is also a gesture of tacit disrespect. 

From Shylock’s vantage, then, what seems like an innocent, even friendly, comment, is no less than another spit on his beard. 

Another type of racial discrimination is verbal violence, which Antonio admits to having once demonstrated towards Shylock – 

ANTONIO

Well, Shylock, shall we be beholding to you?

SHYLOCK

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time
You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?

ANTONIO

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

This exchange between Shylock and Antonio raises a question that continues to be relevant for us today: would you ever do business with someone who discriminates against you?

And if so, is it morally justified to use this as an opportunity to teach your perpetrator a lesson, either by overcharging or setting unequal terms, so as to effect a sort of financial ‘tit for tat’?

In this moment, Shylock shows his incredulity towards Antonio’s request for a loan, and he uses this opportunity to return some of the humiliation that he’s long had to endure from the Christian Antonio, all of which he – 

borne… with a patient shrug
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe

The “badge” metaphor deserves some attention here.

First, it conveys the idea that discrimination has so long been a fact of life for Jews, Shylock’s become so used to suffering now he sees it as no different from wearing a uniform.

But there’s also an undertone of pride in the way Shylocks says this, a sense that he’s almost proud to declare to the world that he’s a member of the persecuted, ‘suffering’ tribe.

By being forced to wear this ‘badge of sufferance’, it condemns him to de facto second-class citizen status, but the fact that everyone sees this badge also relieves him of the social burden to project any false image of ‘uprightness’.

Because even if he did, none of the Christians would treat him any better anyway, so he might as well just be himself by saying what he wants to say, and behaving how he wants to behave. This psychology is often present in members of society who feel ‘left behind or marginalised. 

The problem of Antonio for modern audiences

What makes Antonio interesting as a character is how differently Renaissance and modern audiences would view him. Early Modern playgoers would probably find him a lot more likeable and less problematic than their contemporary counterparts, choosing instead to have focus on his valiance and steadfastness as Bassanio’s friend.

For us, however, these qualities are unlikely to distract us from his blatant antisemitism towards Shylock – a factor that one could very well argue to be the trigger for Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’ demand in the first place. It’s not the victim who’s cruel for wanting his perpetrator’s “pound of flesh” as bond for his loan; nothing happens without a reason, and the reason – Antonio’s long-standing humiliation of “the Jew” – would seem to be reason enough. 

Antonio seems to think that asking Shylock for a loan is ‘strictly business, not personal’, and for all his disgust towards the Jewish usurer, he doesn’t think such personal views need get in the way of what seems to him a purely financial ask.

This shows Antonio’s obliviousness to the impact of his discriminatory actions towards Shylock. In the face of Shylock’s sarcastic riposte about whether “a dog” would possibly have any money to lend, and if he should lend the Christian money while “bend[ing] low” with “bated breath and whispering humbleness”, Antonio shows the sort of self-entitlement that’s so characteristic of racial privilege – 

ANTONIO

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

To Antonio, human emotions don’t have to be involved in commercial transactions, which Shylock, of course, doesn’t agree.

In fact, by suggesting that enemies can “with better face/Exact the penalty” of the debtor who “break[s]” the bond, Antonio possibly inspires the idea of punitive penalty, which Shylock reciprocates by proposing to have Antonio’s “pound of flesh” as collateral for a forfeited loan. It seems, then, that prejudice creates the very conditions that breed hostility. 

Merchant quote_1-3

Act 2: The problem of seeing racial difference as a problem

Technically, Merchant of Venice is a comedy, because it ends with happy marriages (between Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa).

For modern audiences, however, Merchant is at best a tragicomedy, a ‘tragedy masquerading as a comedy’, or a comedy with a tragic hero you can’t ignore. The presence of Shylock makes it difficult for us to finish the play feeling the same sense of joy and closure as we would other comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Despite his capacity for mercilessness, Shylock is a figure of pathos, and one of the reasons for why we would sympathise with him is his absolute isolation in the play.

Not even his daughter, Jessica, stands by him. Indeed, Jessica is ashamed to be associated with her father, and specifically, of being – in her husband Lorenzo’s words – “issue to a faithless Jew”. She sees her Jewish heritage as a biological blot, one which she is determined to remove by marrying a Christian – 

JESSICA 

Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.

(2.3) 

Earlier on in this short scene, Jessica metaphorises the house that she and her father lives in as “hell” (“Our house is hell”). This reference to ‘hell’ is not made out of resentment, but desperation. Her “heinous sin”, however, is not something she can control, and for her to feel “ashamed to be my father’s child” is at least partly Shylock’s fault for bringing her into existence.

But Jessica understands deep within that she can never really abandon her Jewishness, because she is “a daughter to his [Shylock’s] blood”, despite “not to his manners”. Launcelot, Shylock’s once-servant who ultimately switches allegiance to Bassanio, reminds Jessica of the unchangeable in Act 3 Scene 5, when he points out that she is “damned” unless she disassociates herself from her father – 

LAUNCELOT

Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father
are to be laid upon the children: therefore, I
promise ye, I fear you. I was always plain with
you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter:
therefore be of good cheer, for truly I think you
are damned. There is but one hope in it that can do
you any good; and that is but a kind of bastard
hope neither.

JESSICA

And what hope is that, I pray thee?

LAUNCELOT

Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you
not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter.

While Jessica refuses to do so, she retorts by saying that marrying a Christian will ‘wash’ her of this Jewish connection. This, however, only runs up against Launcelot’s flippant put-down – 

JESSICA

I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a
Christian.

LAUNCELOT

Truly, the more to blame he: we were Christians
enow before; e’en as many as could well live, one by
another. This making Christians will raise the
price of hogs: if we grow all to be pork-eaters, we
shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.

“Making” too many Christians will result in too many pork-eaters, and in turn, jack up the price of meat, Launcelot says. So what’s thought of by one person as a chance at social redemption is dismissed by another as a mere practical inconvenience, which again, highlights the lack of empathy that’s so often shown by those ‘blessed’ with racial privilege. 

Another moment in the play where racial difference is indicated to be a problem is Portia’s response to the Prince of Morocco’s failed pursuit. In fact, her comment is so brazenly ‘racist’ by modern standards that I don’t think any reader today can overlook it when evaluating her character. Upon the Prince of Morocco’s departure, Portia remarks – 

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

(2.7) 

“Let all of his complexion choose me so”: I hope anyone who looks like him will choose the wrong casket (and as such, won’t be my husband). This echoes the Moroccan’s opening to his speech in Act 2 Scene 1, when he says –

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred. 

Well, Portia clearly isn’t a fan of the Moroccan’s complexion, and if we watch the 2004 film adaptation of Merchant (starring Al Pacino as Shylock), we’ll see that this ‘complexion’ is understood to be black. To think of Portia as a racist, however, would probably be difficult for most audiences to stomach, because she is otherwise brave, generous, intelligent, beautiful – and overwhelmingly likeable.

This forces us to consider whether positive traits count for much in those who also happen to be racist – do we cease to like them or view them as decent people?

Can racists also be brave, generous, intelligent and beautiful?

Can you have likeable racists, or is this a contradiction in terms?

These are, of course, not at all easy questions to answer, but certainly very human ones that we should consider.

Merchant quote_1-2

Act 3: The problem with racial prejudice bringing about more problems 

One of the major dilemmas in approaching this play is how we respond to Shylock. Deserving of sympathy as he may be, his ‘an eye for an eye’ insistence on having Antonio’s heart (the “pound of flesh”) as bond portrays him to be a cruel, and overall unlikeable character.

But is his desire for revenge against one racist individual really so cruel, or was the systemic discrimination against Jewish people in Renaissance Venice crueller?

At the very least, is Shylock’s technically lawful but inhumane demand of Antonio’s flesh justifiable, given the long-standing injustice that he’s been subject to by this same man who’s now asking him for money?

The essential question, then, is whether vengeance is legitimate when the system itself is deeply unjust. 

armando-ascorve-morales-XpmsZmAMf_g-unsplash

In what’s perhaps the most famous speech in Merchant (if not in all of Shakespeare’s works), Shylock poses this moral challenge to Salarino, when he asks whether Jews are any different from Christians.

Ever the racially blinkered Venetian, Salarino questions what good there is for Shylock to take Antonio’s pound of flesh; there’s no use you can make out of human meat, so why insist on it and not just settle for compensation instead? 

Shylock, however, sees this as a matter beyond transactional logic. It’s a historical grudge that he must address – a moral wrong that he can finally make right: 

SALARINO

Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take
his flesh: what’s that good for?

SHYLOCK

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. 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 prick 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 villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

(3.1) 

In enumerating Antonio’s unjust actions – “He hath disgraced me, and/hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies”, Shylock exposes the range of abuse that this Christian has subjected him to.

And all for what? The fact that “I am a Jew”.

Racial animus alone, it seems, is “reason” enough for some to exact all kinds of injustices on their fellow men. 

He then launches into an impassioned, anaphoric string of rhetorical questions, whereby he asks if Jews don’t have the same “eyes”, “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions” as Christians, and if they aren’t “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”.

As a specimen of rhetorical study, this is surely a brilliant moment that’s very likely to garner support for Shylock amongst audiences (especially modern day ones). But this is not so much a triumphant moment as a tragic one, because it reveals why prejudice persists in societies. 

For all the fundamental physical traits that Jews and Christians share, they are divided on the deeper aspects which shape the core of one’s identity and values, such as  religion, race and culture.

To some, seeing people who look different from them and live according to different rules is a threat*, because they represent what we don’t understand, and not understanding is often the quickest route to fear, from which more unpleasant emotions stem.  

By listing out all the surface similarities between Jews and Christians, Shylock reveals that their common ground is, in fact, rather limited, and not inclusive of those elements which actually bind humans together – conviction, familiarity and trust. Ironically, Shylock is also right in pointing out what Jews and Christians – for all their differences – do share: feelings of vengeance – 

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. 

It’s unfortunate, but too often, common humanity shows itself in our mutual capacity for inhumanity against one other. 

*The alternative response is fascination, which tends to result not in racism, but exoticism. This sentiment can be just as problematic when viewing people of other races or backgrounds, because it assumes a basis of interest in their state of difference (i.e. we are interested in them primarily for the fact that they are different). 

Merchant quote_1

What are your thoughts on how Merchant of Venice portrays the themes of racism and prejudice?

Has it made you think more critically about discrimination in our society, and what can we do to overcome this barrier in human relations? 

Comment below with your thoughts! I’d love to hear from you.

For a detailed analysis on some of Shakespeare’s other plays, check out my other posts below: 

3 thoughts on “What The Merchant of Venice tells us about racism and prejudice

  1. This is a great overview of ‘MOV’. I enjoyed reading it.

    I’d be interested to read your take on the many biblical and classical allusions that are used throughout ‘MOV’.

    A lot of my students struggle to grasp the story of Jacob and Laban, for example, which ties in quite well with some of the ideas in your post. This allusion to the Bible so early on in the play (A1S3) allows the audience to anticipate Shylock’s technically legal, but arguably immoral, manipulation of the terms of the deal with Antonio (which you also discuss). The allusion also acts as a justification for the practice of usury, countering Antonio’s perspective that usury is unsavoury. While not about money, Jacob profits by gaining possession of the sheep in the same way that Shylock sets terms in order to charge interest. Shylock uses the Bible to advance the idea that making profit is a form of ingenuity: just like Jacob, who has to rely on his intelligence in an unfriendly system, Shylock too must be creative in the ways he gains power in an unjust society. Shylock is concerned with more figurative profit or ‘interest’: power. This is why he foregoes charging Antonio monetary interest, instead requesting a pound of flesh. Charging interest in order to get money and manipulating the deal with Antonio in order to get a pound of flesh are both ways of gaining status and social mobility. Antonio already has access to status and mobility as a member of the merchant class but Shylock as a Jew is deprived of this. This ties in with your question about ‘whether vengeance is legitimate when the system itself is deeply unjust’. Shylock’s actions are framed as a response to prejudice and the societal constraints placed upon him. While Shylock is presented as a stereotypical Jew to an extent, duplicitous and driven by his own need (parallels can be drawn with Barabas in ‘The Jew of Malta’) and willing to cite scripture for personal gain, here, deceit is the only way in which Shylock can gain power over Antonio in a society in which he is the Jewish Other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading! I like your analysis of the Jacob and Laban allusion – it got me thinking about a key difference in the nature of the allusive sources that Shylock and the Christians use. Shylock only ever alludes to characters in the Hebrew Bible, while the rest of the characters allude to Greek and Roman figures. This alone tells us that there’s a fundamental chasm in Shylock’s relationship with the society around him: as a Jew, his identity and belief de facto marginalise him, because the values he draws on aren’t understood or accepted by the Christians. For example, Gratiano is at first unfamiliar with Shylock’s “Daniel” reference in 4.1, but he is able to quickly learn and use it against his Jewish adversary (“I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.”), which befits the power dynamics between racial superiors vs inferiors in any society. Ironically, the mock lyrical references that Lorenzo and Jessica make to tragic medieval and Greek characters in their banter at the start of 5.1 show their *lack* of knowledge in these myths, given the oddity of alluding to doomed pairs in a dialogue which celebrates the success of romantic elopement. But of course, this could be foreboding for a Christian-Jewish union (also doomed), in that Shakespeare may be hinting at the eventual breakdown of a relationship built upon the heavy history of racial distrust and mutual prejudice between two peoples.

      Like

      • I’ve never really considered how different characters use different allusions. Perhaps the way that Christian characters (who, by virtue of their religion and subsequent social acceptance, tend to be more privileged in the play) use classical allusion more frequently is a reflection of education and privilege. Education used to be more focussed on classical texts and Ancient writers. Even Lancelot alludes to Charybdis and Scylla, perhaps illustrating how, despite his servitude and low status, he is still more socially mobile than characters like Shylock.

        I roll my eyes at the classical allusions in Act 5 every time but I agree that they’re effective in undermining the comedic ending by hinting at Jessica and Lorenzo’s ignorance as well as the potential doom that may befall their relationship beyond the parameters of the play. It’s hardly the “happy” ending of comedy when so many supposedly great loves end in death or suicide.

        A disclaimer: I don’t know the ins and outs of the Bible or different religious texts. However, if the Old Testament is part of both the Torah and the Christian Bible, does Shylock’s citation of this establish some kind of common ground or does it simply draw attention to Shylock’s selection of specific parts of the Bible and rejection of other parts of the Bible, thereby characterising him in an unfavourable way?

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s