In The Merchant of Venice, which quotes support prejudice as a major theme?

In The Merchant of Venice, there are numerous instances in which characters reveal themselves to be prejudiced or speak on the injustices done out of prejudice, making it one of the play's major themes. In act 1, scene 3, Shylock says, "I hate him for he is a Christian," and later, in act 3, scene 1, he delivers a speech, imploring the audience to recognize that the Jewish people are "warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer" as Christians.

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Prejudice is certainly a theme of The Merchant of Venice. Probably the most powerful example of this can be found in Shylock, one of Shakespeare's most complicated villains. While, on the one hand, you should be aware that he is written in line with many of the Jewish stereotypes of the time (seen from modern perspectives, he is certainly problematic), we see in act 3, scene 1, in one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, Shylock decry anti-Semitism and the ill treatment he and other Jews have received at the hands of Christian society. Here, he states:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

I would suggest any discussion on the subject of prejudice in The Merchant of Venice needs to take into account the character of Shylock and his pursuing vengeance against Antonio.

Another key passage that I think is worth discussing is spoken by Portia during the trial scene. As she states in the famous Quality of Mercy speech:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd ...

It is twice bless'd;

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. ...

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.
(act 4, scene 1)

To be sure, this passage by itself does not directly invoke the subject of prejudice, but when read within the larger context of the trial, there is something deeply problematic in Portia's words, given that Portia herself does not live up to these ideals. As soon as she defeats Shylock and has him at her mercy, she seeks his complete destruction, leaving him ruined. When the Christian is facing the wrath of a Jew, we can observe this call for mercy. Note, however, that it does not apply the other way around.

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There are a number of quotes which indicate prejudice. I have selected the most pertinent ones. The first significant one is Portia's disdainful references to the waiting suitors, who all wish to chance their luck in choosing the right casket to win her as a bride. Nerissa mentions each suitor and Portia mocks them by pointing out their shortcomings or iniquities. It is obvious that she does not like foreigners and seems to relish making fun of them. To summarise her evident prejudice, she tells Nerissa in Act 1, scene 2:

I am glad this parcel of wooers
are so reasonable, for there is not one among them
but I dote on his very absence, and I pray God grant
them a fair departure.

In the same scene, when Portia is informed about the arrival of the prince of Morocco she utters a blatantly racist remark about him:

...if he have the condition
of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had
rather he should shrive me than wive me.

She states that she would rather have the prince hear her confession than marry him since he is black.

Shylock provides pertinent evidence of his prejudice against Christians when he tells Bassanio in Act 1, scene 3:

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.

This abhorrence for Christians is specifically expressed with regard to Antonio when Shylock says in the same scene:

How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian . . .

Antonio expresses a similar sentiment when he later tells Bassanio about Shylock in Act 1, scene 3:

Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart . . .

Shylock confirms the fact that Antonio despises him when he refers to his abuse at the merchant's hands:

'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog . . .

In his response, Antonio does not apologise for his ill treatment of Shylock, but rather says:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.

In Act 2, scene 2, Launcelot, Shylock's servant, expresses a particular hatred for his master. His comment is not only based on the fact that he feels that Shylock has ill-treated and underpaid him, but reflects a general prejudice by Venetians, in general, towards Jews, who are deemed stingy money grubbers:

Certainly the Jew is the very devil
incarnal . . .

In his estimation, Shylock is the devil himself.

In Act 2, scene 8, Salanio expresses the same feelings about Shylock by calling him a villain and a dog.

It is this intolerance between the different characters which forms the basis of the play. All the ensuing events arise from the characters' mutual hatred for one another. Although the problems which arise are eventually resolved, the solutions are not perfect since the characters still bear their prejudice.

The fact that Portia marries Bassanio, the one she loves, does not cure her of prejudice. She would, most probably, maintain the same bias she has against foreigners. The same holds true for all the other characters. Lorenzo, although he marries Jessica, Shylock's daughter, does not suddenly express tolerance for Jews and embrace his father-in-law.

Even though Antonio extends some mercy to Shylock, he still requests an extremely harsh punishment for him—that the devout Jew should sacrifice his religion and become a Christian. Launcelot still hates his erstwhile master whilst all the others do not, at any point, express any regret for their bitterness and hatred. They, instead, celebrate their revenge for they believe that the Jew has gotten what he deserves.

In this sense then, there is no real victory, for prejudice still continues on its maliciously merry way.

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