The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare


If he have the condition a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me. (I.ii.129-131)

In just the scene two of act one, Portia tells Nerissa that even if the Prince of Morocco behaves perfectly, she still wouldn’t be interested in marrying him because of his dark complexion. Portia’s lines set a precedent continued through the rest of the play: the play’s protagonists act on prejudice against those who look or act differently than they do. As Portia’s prejudice is an inextricable factor in her search for a husband, the plot-shaping actions of characters such as Antonio, Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Lancelot are laced with a prejudice that troubles modern readers.

You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine, (I.iii.120-122)

When Antonio and Bassanio approach Shylock for a loan, Shylock recounts Antonio’s past abuse. These vivid images of Antonio’s anti-Semitic cruelty explain the origin of Shylock’s hatred for Antonio and his friends. No matter how villainous Shylock becomes, modern readers can’t simply root for the play’s protagonists because we’ve witnessed their cruelty. Some interpretations of the play argue that moments such as this scene are evidence that Shakespeare intended Shylock to be a victim, not a villain, while others claim that those arguments come from a modern understanding of prejudice and shouldn’t be applied to an Elizabethan text.

This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs. (III.v.22-23)

Lancelet teases Jessica about her conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Despite running away from Shylock, marrying Lorenzo, and converting to Christianity, Jessica remains subject to anti-Semitism because the attitude is so deeply ingrained in the play’s Christian characters. For modern readers analyzing and interpreting this play, this moment demonstrates the strength of prejudice in the thoughts and actions of the characters, reminding us take the historical context of the play into account when making inferences about characterization and motivation.