The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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Why does Gratiano quote Pythagoras in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice?

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Gratiano is Bassanio’s friend in The Merchant of Venice, a big talker and a bit of a rogue. He is probably Shylock’s biggest critique and is often very rude to him. In act 4 scene 1, during Antonio’s trial, Shylock demands the pound of flesh Antonio put up for collateral. Gratiano, never shy to sling insults at Shylock, gives an angry speech in which he says:

O, be thou damned, inexecrable dog,

And for thy life let justice be accused!

Thou almost makest me waver in my faith

To hold opinion with Pythagoras

That souls of animals infuse themselves

Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit

Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,

Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet.

In the first few lines, Gratiano is calling Shylock a dog and saying that he wants to kill him, even though he’s a Christian. He then references the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who believed (among many other things) that human souls are reincarnated from the souls of animals. Then, he accuses Shylock of being a wolf reborn, due to his vicious nature. He says it must have been a wolf that was put to death for slaughtering humans, and when the wolf died, its soul went into the unborn Shylock.

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