The Merchant of Venice

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Themes and Colors
Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Icon
Human and Animal Theme Icon
Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Icon
Greed vs. Generosity Theme Icon
Reading and Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Merchant of Venice, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Human and Animal Theme Icon

Closely related to the theme of prejudice and intolerance is the theme of humanity—and the inhumanity of which various characters accuse one another. In insulting and abusing Shylock, the Venetians frequently denigrate him as an animal or devil. Shylock, in turn, seeks to reduce his debtor Antonio to the status of an animal whose body can be bought or sold. In the courtroom scene, he justifies his purchasing of a pound of Antonio's flesh as being fundamentally similar to the way in which other Venetians might buy slaves or livestock.

Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice as a philosophical movement called "Renaissance humanism" became prominent. This philosophy defined humans as exceptional beings, existing outside of the chain of being of God's other creatures. Yet, The Merchant of Venice shows how this type of humanism can be used to abuse outsiders. After all, if being "human" ceases to be based on biology, then exactly who is human and who isn't becomes a matter of interpretation. The play's Christian characters clearly believe that being Christian is a primary requirement for being human, as both the insults aimed at Shylock and the Prince of Morocco suggest. In his famous speech justifying his desire for revenge in 3.1, Shylock explicitly rejects the humanist definition of "humanity," describing his similarity to the Venetians in terms of biological functions that all human beings share: tickling, eating, bleeding, dying. Constant references in the play to "flesh and blood" further highlight humans' biological, "animal" origins..

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Human and Animal Quotes in The Merchant of Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in The Merchant of Venice related to the theme of Human and Animal.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
When he is best, he is a little worse than a man; and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.88-89
Explanation and Analysis:

As Portia and her handmaiden Nerissa discuss many of the suitors which are striving to marry her, Portia does not attempt to fabricate her opinions with any false positivity or pretense. She even compares the Duke of Saxony's nephew (one of her suitors) to an animal, introducing this play's focus on human and animal categories, and the arbitrary way we can decide who and who isn't a "man" or a "beast." Portia's suitors represent many of the world's ethnicities, races, and nations; in her opinions towards these men, we first see the stereotyping and classification that will pervade the play's action. 


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Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
If he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Bassanio
Page Number: 3.2.46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

While Bassanio chooses between the lead, silver, and gold caskets to hopefully win Portia, Portia leads other members of her household in song, which will either provide Bassanio with "a swan-like end, / Fading with music" or will surround Bassanio's victory with appropriate fanfare. In this play, music will reappear in the context of Lorenzo and Jessica's moonlit love; music serves as an indicator of feelings which require a higher register in order to be truly expressed. Portia also relies on animal imagery, which reappears to either further denigrate characters such as Shylock or further elevate figures such as her ideal suitor Bassanio.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.116-118
Explanation and Analysis:

When Antonio hears that his ships, and therefore his wealth, has been destroyed at sea, he delivers a seemingly Biblical description of himself as the "tinted wether of the flock" who is destined for death. Here, he describes himself using animal symbolism (a wether is a castrated male sheep), denigrating himself as he has earlier denigrated Shylock on so many occasions. Shylock here is in the position of authority, as the language of Antonio's defeat suggests. Finally, Antonio is no longer in a position of power, and we might guess, along with Antonio, that Shylock will take advantage of this new situation and make good on his desire to get revenge over Antonio.