antisemitism and rascism in the merchant of venice

The theme of anti-semitism and racism runs through the work both overtly and covertly from Portia’s views on the swarthy Duke of Monaco. “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1. 2. 33). And her desire for a husband more akin to her racially and culturally (Bassiano) to Antonio’s open disdain and abuse of Shylock it is a recurring and unavoidable theme throughout the play. In reading the play it is imperative to keep at the fore of ones mind that Shakespeare was writing for an audience of the 16th century and his treatment of Jews, while seemingly incredibly harsh to modern readers, is actually fairly mild considering he was living in a world where pogroms and the herding of those of the Judaic faith into ghettos was the norm. Jews of the period, when they were portrayed (most usually in passion plays, wearing horns and such), were one dimensional stock characters; the equivalent to the evil mastermind in today’s action films. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a bit more complex. He even gives reasons and voice to the justifiable grievances the Jewish people had against the Gentiles at the time. In the third act, Shylock says “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?” (3.1.23). In this simple soliloquy, Shakespeare has humanized Shylock for us and given us a view into the psyche of one who has been harassed, oppressed, and discriminated against his whole life. I for one felt something akin to sympathy for him. While not agreeing with his method of revenge (the extraction of a pound of flesh), I can certainly understand why he feels he must revenge himself on a people who have forced him into usury and then ridiculed and spat on him for it, thrown him into a ghetto, and then deplored the conditions that he lives in, as if it were his or his peoples fault. This suggestion to look deeper than the surface is even demonstrated by the caskets, it is not the gold nor the silver one that holds the key to Portia’s hand but the leaden one. As the famous line goes “All that glitters is not gold.” (2.7.59)

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4 thoughts on “antisemitism and rascism in the merchant of venice

  1. Meaghan Platania

    You make so many really great points and have found great examples of your points within the text. I personally think that the racism that is apparent in this work is just another example of the complex nature of Shakespeare's works. In addition, I find it intriguing that we can draw parallels between the racism found in this play and the racism still seen in the world today. For example, Shakespeare, through Shylock's character, makes a suggestion that Jewish people are tight with their money. This stereotype of Jewish people is still one that is used today. This is what about Shakespeare, no matter how old his works are, they are still relevant!

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  2. Rachel Ritacco

    You bring up a topic that really intrigues me about Shakespeare: his ability to see and empathize with different points of view. As you stated, Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice during a time in which Jews were ridiculed and abused for their beliefs. Yet Shakespeare was able to create a Jewish character with whom, although he has some less-than-admirable qualities, we can sympathize and feel sorry for. Similarly, he was able to do this in plays involving female characters. Shakespeare seemed to enter the mindset of many of his women, and bring out their strong qualities. In Macbeth, for example, he creates a powerful female role who can enact change and exert influence over her husband. Here, he is counteracting the stereotype of women as the weak, subordinate sex in society.Also, in contradiction to racial predudices, Shakespeare was able to produce the work Othello, in which the title character, a black man, is presented as a complex, emotional character. While he does later kill his wife, Desdemona, the actual villain in this story is the white man, Iago, who spurred him to do it.Thus, it is fascinating to me that a man existing in the sexist, racist, prejudiced era of his time could write about characters from such varied standpoints, with such a deep level of understanding.

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  3. AimeeL

    Genevieve, I had previously written a post on Shylock and the empathy I had felt for him as well. After reading Act IV, my empathy for him increased. Not only was his contract forfeited,but then he was forced to convert to Christianity. I appreciate how you also mentioned his soliloquy, and that Shakespeare did display the ultimate vulnerability of Jews in Elizabethan England. Shylock mentions in his own defense the savagery of Christian men by stating: "What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong? You have among you many a purchased slave which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, you use in abject and in slavish parts because you bought them….." (4.1.88 – 4.1.102), equivocating the treatment of Jews to the treatment of slaves.

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  4. Allison Wild

    Genevieve- The soliloquy you chose to include in arguing Shakespeare's humanization of Shylock is something I also find crucial to this play. I like that you included the historical background, proving that Shakespeare was not merely agreeing with the common societal view of Jews but that he also saw the uncommon view of humanity in Jews.

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