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

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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:

...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.

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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The Merchant of Venice

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