Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Race

By William Shakespeare

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In The Merchant of Venice, Judaism and Christianity aren't just religions—they're constructed as racial (and even national) identities as well.  In its portrayal of a bloodthirsty Jewish moneylender, the play famously dramatizes 16th-century racial stereotypes that are deeply unsettling, especially for modern audiences.  

While there's no doubt the play depicts anti-Semitism, literary critics are divided over the question of whether or not the play itself endorses racism. You're a literary critic too—what are your thoughts on the matter?

Questions About Race

  1. Characters like Antonio are unapologetically racist, but does the play endorse anti-Semitism? 
  2. Is Shylock ever portrayed as a character we should sympathize with?
  3. Why doesn't Portia like the Prince of Morocco?
  4. Why does Jessica flee her father's house? 

Chew on This

By portraying Shylock as a sympathetic figure and victim of racism, Shakespeare's play criticizes bigotry and intolerance.

The Merchant of Venice perpetuates anti-Semitism by portraying Shylock as a stereotypical (according to 16th-century standards) bloodthirsty Jewish moneylender seeking a pound of flesh from a Christian character.

The Merchant of Venice neither endorses nor critiques anti-Semitism; it merely portrays anti-Semitism on the stage.

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