How is the theme of prejudice in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice still relevant in today's society?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism is significant throughout the play The Merchant of Venice. Shylock and his daughter Jessica are viewed with suspicion and treated differently because they are Jewish. Throughout history, Jews have been discriminated against and persecuted because of their religion. In Europe, during the Late Middle Ages through the Renaissance, Jews were restricted to living in certain sections of cities called ghettos and forced to wear distinctive emblems to show that they were Jewish. Today, some Americans and Europeans still harbor prejudiced feelings towards people who are Jewish. Generalizations and stereotypes such as being greedy or cheap are still associated with those of the Jewish faith. Although Jews are no longer persecuted like they were in the past, some people still have prejudiced feelings towards them. However, the same can be said for practically any race, religion, or ethnicity in America or Europe. There will always be individuals prejudiced towards those who are considered "different" from them. The difference between the prejudice in today's societies and Europe in the 16th century is that Jews are no longer openly discriminated against or persecuted as they were in the past.

jungpak | Student

Great question!  One of the key reasons why Shakespeare is such an important writer is his universality; that is to say, he was (and probably still remains) one of the history's greatest observers of human nature.  Remember, this was a man who lived in Tudor England, where death, disease, and political danger lurked everywhere - life was pretty painful and people needed escape.  These plays, because they mirrored so much of what the masses understood in their daily lives, resonated with nobles and peasants alike.  As Shakespeare said, the play holds the mirror up to our very souls.

So, one could look at a straight forward interpretation of prejudice as a major theme and link it to bigotry of today but then let's define what it means to be prejudice.  It means that we buy into stereotypes of whole people and leave no room for any deviation.  These people are that way; those people are this way.  These themes are clearly present in modern world.  Look at a modern high school:  "jocks", "nerds", "princesses", "basket cases", and so on - we buy into those stereotypes all the type.  John Hughes made many, many good films specifically about these kinds of stereotypes in teens.  

For Shakespeare, he lived in a time where English people had very, very little contact with Jewish culture largely due to the Edict of Expulsion in 1290 decreed by Edward I.  This was not the only expulsion of Jews in England but it opened the door.  So by Shakespeare's time, there were many, many misconception about Jewish people and culture.  One need only read fairy tales and children's stories of the time to see how far people allowed their prejudice to go.  Also keep in mind the geographic isolation of England as an island; people are not as likely to have exposure to different cultures as they might on the mainland.  Although in modern times, we have much more exposure to different cultures and people because of the Internet, we are also very isolated in that the ease at which we can get information makes us vulnerable to bad information. Just as Shakespeare's audience and his characters were trapped in the "I know what I know but don't know that there's more" paradigm, we often find the same thing has happened to us in the modern world.

Notice though, that while it's easy to classify people into boxes, people seldom ever point the finger at their own group.  How often do we say, "Yes, they are like that but what about us?"  This type of autognosis is what is lacking in all of the major characters in The Merchant of Venice.  Shylock is a product of his environment, yes, but he is also completely unaware of how he plays into the stereotypes he so hates.  Note that when he discovers that his daughter Jessica has run off, his chief concern is for . . .yep, that's right: His ducats!  The Christians are also guilty of great hypocrisy.  They condemn Shylock for money lending but yet will take full advantage of the the loan they get from him.  So one could argue that while the theme of prejudice is an important one, hypocrisy is probably the end game.  As Shylock points out in the infamous court scene, what's the point of a law if it doesn't apply to everyone?  "Fie upon your law!"   But then again, does not mercy and common sense trump laws?  Do laws, when they are just, not have the ability to be merciful?  

In the modern world, we grapple with these ideas all the time.  What is the nature of law?  Does it reflect a concrete set of rules or should it reflect the nature of a given society?  If the society is not just, fair and merciful, what then, does it say about the laws that govern it?


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