Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Race

By William Shakespeare

Race

Act 1, Scene 2
Portia

PORTIA
If I could bid the fifth welcome with so good
heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should
be glad of his approach. If he have the condition of
a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather
he should shrive me than wive me. (1.2.127-131)

Characters like Portia are intolerant of anyone who doesn't share her religious, ethnic, and national background. Here she says she'd never want to marry the Prince of Morocco (even if the guy were a "saint") because he's got a dark complexion like "the devil." In Shakespeare's day, black men (like the characters Othello and Aaron the Moor) were often associated with the devil and evil in general.   

Act 1, Scene 3
Shylock

SHYLOCK [aside] 
How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls "interest." Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him! (1.3.41-52)

There's no love lost between Shylock and Antonio. Shylock insists that he hates Antonio because he's a "Christian" and because he undermines his money-lending business and talks smack about him at the Rialto (the merchant's exchange in Venice). We also learn that Antonio hates Shylock's "sacred nation," and we'll soon learn just how much of an anti-Semite Antonio is.

SHYLOCK
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
[...]
'Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday
   last,
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?
ANTONIO
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (1.3.121-122; 135-141)

Yikes! When Shylock points out that Antonio has treated him like garbage, Antonio is unapologetic and insists that his racist behavior will never change, not even if Shylock lends him money. When we read passages like this, we wonder whether Antonio's abuse of Shylock is at least partially to blame for our "villain's" treacherous behavior later in the play.  

SHYLOCK
This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
ANTONIO
Content, in faith. I'll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in the Jew. (1.3.155-165)

Shylock's business proposition is associated with a racist stereotype. When he suggests that a pound of Antonio's "fair flesh" should serve as a bond for the loan, Shakespeare's 16th-century audience would have been reminded of the (completely false) stories about murderous Jews who supposedly sought Christian blood for use in religious rituals. 

Bassanio

BASSANIO
If it please you to dine with us.
SHYLOCK
Yes, to smell pork! To eat of the habitation
which your prophet the Nazarite conjured the
devil into!  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. (1.3.132-138)

Here we receive a lesson in how <em>not</em> to turn down a multi-faith dinner invitation. Shylock reveals here that he can be just as bigoted as Antonio when he refuses to eat, drink, or pray with men who don't share his religious identity. 

Antonio

ANTONIO
Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind. (1.3.191-192)

Antonio's sarcasm is pretty blatant here—he cannot fathom the possibility that Shylock the Jew is just being "kind." We also notice Antonio's use of the word "gentle," a term that shows up quite a bit in this play.  For Antonio and many of the other characters, "gentle" means a few things: 1) considerate behavior, 2) aristocratic heritage, and 3) gentile (Christian).  In other words, Antonio is saying that Shylock will never be "gentle" (considerate or upper class) because he's not a Christian. 

Act 2, Scene 1

PRINCE OF MOROCCO
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor, and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear'd the valiant; by my love, I swear
The best regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too. I would not change this hue
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. (2.1.1-12)

It's interesting that an African Prince should have to apologize for his complexion to a woman who is lower in stature than he is. Even though Portia is disdainful of the prince, his graciousness is impressive. At the same time, however, the prince's speech stands out as being more formal and eloquent than the speech of other characters in the play, which makes him even more of an outsider.  

In fact, this reminds us of how Shylock's repetitious style of speech also differentiates him from the Christian characters. What's up with that?

Act 2, Scene 3
Jessica

JESSICA
Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child?
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3.16-21)

Jessica is ashamed to be her father's "child" because 1) Shylock is Jewish, which makes her Jewish, and 2) Shylock's has rude "manners" (read: he's not gentle or gentile). We also notice that, in Jessica's mind, marrying a gentile (a non-Jew) is synonymous with her own conversion from Jew to Christian. (This concept is from 1 Corinthians 7:14: "The unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.")

Act 3, Scene 1
Shylock

SHYLOCK
He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted
my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—  
and what's his reason? I am a Jew. 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. (3.1.53-72)

This is probably the most famous passage in the entire play. When Shylock asks "if you prick us do we not bleed?" he insists on the fact that Jews and Christians share a common humanity. Here, Shylock also exposes the hypocrisy of the Christian characters who are always talking about Christian love and mercy but then go out of their way to alienate Shylock because he's Jewish and different. This is powerful stuff, but we should also point out that, elsewhere in the play, Shylock himself tends to emphasize the differences between Jews and Christians. (See 1.3.8 for evidence of this.)

Psst. Click here to check out our favorite performance of this speech, by actor Al Pacino.

Act 3, Scene 5
Jessica

JESSICA
Nay, you need not fear us, Lorenzo. Lancelet
and I are out. He tells me flatly there is no mercy for
me in heaven, because I am a Jew's daughter; and
he says, you are no good member of the commonwealth,
for in converting Jews to Christians you
raise the price of pork.
LORENZO
I shall answer that better to the commonwealth
than you can the getting up of the n****'s
belly! The Moor is with child by you, Lancelet. (3.5.30-38)

When Jessica and Lorenzo clown around with Lancelot, we get a sense of the play's anxiety about interracial couplings. Here Lancelot has been joking that Lorenzo's marriage to a "Jew's daughter" has raised the price of pork. (The idea being that Jessica's marriage has automatically converted her to Christianity, a religion that doesn't shun the consumption of swine.)  

The conversation becomes even more bizarre when Lorenzo says something like, "Well I may have married a "Jew's daughter" but you got a Moor pregnant." What the heck is going on here? Although the play seems to endorse Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo and her conversion to Christianity, it also seems to stress the fact that Jessica, like Lancelot's black girlfriend, is an outsider in the play. 

Act 4, Scene 1
The Duke of Venice

DUKE OF VENICE
Make room, and let him stand before our face.—
Shylock, the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then, 'tis thought,
Thou wilt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;
And where thou now exacts the penalty,
Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh,
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touched with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moi'ty of the principal,
[...]
We all expect a gentle answer, Jew. (4.1.17-27; 35)

The Duke's speech illustrates the extent to which Christians are oblivious of their prejudice. They expect Shylock to show mercy, as if they deserve it, but fail to acknowledge that they never showed any mercy to him. We also notice the repetitive use of the term "gentle" in this passage, which suggests that the Duke thinks of mercy as a Christian, or "gentile," characteristic, which he wants Shylock to emulate.