The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare


Quotes Prejudice
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.

If I could bid the fifth welcome with so good a heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should be glad of his approach. If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me. (A I, s ii)

Portia speaks to Nerissa as they discuss Portia’s possible suitors early in the play. Portia clearly shows bias against any man with dark skin, who would not be her preference even if he were to possess exemplary character. Portia’s matter-of-fact approach to racial differences demonstrates the discrimination that was typical of their society. The fact that Portia would care more about the race than the character of the man she marries demonstrates the social realities of the importance of skin color in this Venetian society.

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. (A I, s iii)

Shylock responds to Bassanio’s offer to dine with Antonio and Bassanio. Shylock immediately declines, referring to irreconcilable differences between their Christianity and his Judaism. Eating pork represents the ethnic divide, since in the Jewish faith, pigs were considered unclean in the an Old Testament. Shylock adds scorn to his refusal of their hospitality by schooling them in the Christian belief that Jesus commanded demons to enter a herd of pigs. He explains that while they cannot eat together, they can still do business together. Such a response speaks to the religious intolerance in Venice at the time. Merchants would work with tradesmen of different faiths, but people wouldn’t allow different religions to mix in their personal or social matters. Apparently, all sides agreed to this racial and religious separation, creating division, strife, and anger.

Signor 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, cutthroat dog, And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine— And all for use of that which is mine own. (A I, s iii)

Shylock speaks directly to Antonio, reminding him how Antonio mistreats Shylock due to his religion. This discussion comes as Bassanio asks for a loan from Shylock, using Antonio’s credit. Shylock hates Antonio because of the way Antonio judges, and because he does not like the way Antonio does business. The religious difference between Antonio and Shylock fuels Antonio’s mistreatment of Shylock and, in turn, Shylock’s hatred for Antonio. The fact that Antonio remains unaware of how his religious insults disrespect and anger others shows the discrimination common to their society.