William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice displays the racial and ethnic prejudices of its time. Those prejudices, however, both preceded Shakespeare's time, and succeeded it. Indeed, the anti-Semitism at the heart of the play was highly symbolic of European cultures for well-over one thousand years. The phenomenon of racial, ethnic or religious animosity towards people of the Jewish faith have been a defining characteristic of mankind since well-before the birth of Jesus, and would see its ultimate manifestation in the systematic murder of six million European Jews during the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism resulted in the imposition of strict limitations on the professions open to Jews, and banking and money-lending was one of very few to which Jewish businessmen could aspire. The ironic result of these restrictions was to then create a corollary of the pre-existing anti-Semitism. Jews now became identified with those very financial practices that were open to them. As money-lending generally, as is the case today, involved the charging of interest--a fee to which the borrower agrees upon taking out a loan--a pernicious stereotype developed linking Jews to the charging of interest in exchange for financial aid. So, a people already loathed for their rejection of Christianity were also hated for their participation in the practice of money-lending. It is in this context that one approaches Shakespeare's play. Observe in the following passage from early in The Merchant of Venice the Jewish money-lender Shylock's response to a request for financial assistance from Antonio:
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:'
Shylock is a pathetic character, reviled by those who would seek his services. Shakespeare's depiction of this character has been widely perceived as an indication of anti-Semitism on the part of the playwright. Whether Shakespeare was himself anti-Semitic, however, is immaterial. After all, one of the play's most enduring scenes involves Shylock's passionate plea for justice in the rigged court near the play's ending. What is for certain, however, is that the character of Shylock, and his treatment by those around him, is highly representative of the treatment of Jews for over a millennia.
Shakespeare's depiction of anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice is as relevant today as when the play was written. In fact, with anti-Semitism on the rise around the world, including in the United States, where extreme right-wing fringe groups and liberal university professors and students have elevated it to heights unseen in many years, the relevance of the play could be considered greater today. Sadly, racial prejudices never really disappear. They may be sublimated for a time, but, under the right conditions, they reappear with a disturbing regularity.