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

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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.

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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.

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