The Merchant of Venice

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Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Analysis

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.
Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Icon

The Venetians in The Merchant of Venice almost uniformly express extreme intolerance of Shylock and the other Jews in Venice. In fact, the exclusion of these "others" seems to be a fundamental part of the social bonds that cement the Venetian Christians together. How otherwise would the ridiculous clown Launcelot ingratiate himself with the suave Bassanio? Or why would the sensitive Antonio tolerate someone as crass as Gratiano? It is possible to argue that Shakespeare himself shares his characters' certainty that the Jews are naturally malicious and inferior to Christians because of Shylock's ultimate refusal to show any mercy at all and, as a result, his pitiful end.

Yet there are also reasons to think that Shakespeare may be subtly criticizing the prejudices of his characters. Shylock's fury comes not from some malicious "Jewishness" but as a result of years of abuse. For example, though he is criticized by Antonio for practicing usury (charging interest on borrowed money) Jews were actually barred from most other professions. In other words, the Christians basically forced Shylock to work in a profession that the Christians then condemned as immoral. Shylock insists that he "learned" his hatred from the Christians, and it is Shylock alone who argues that all of the characters are the same, in terms of biology and under the law. Viewed this way, The Merchant of Venice offers a critique of the same prejudices that it seemingly endorses?

Prejudice and Intolerance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Prejudice and Intolerance appears in each scene of The Merchant of Venice. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Prejudice and Intolerance Quotes in The Merchant of Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in The Merchant of Venice related to the theme of Prejudice and Intolerance.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
Related Characters: Antonio (speaker), Shylock
Page Number: 1.3.107
Explanation and Analysis:

As Antonio strives to procure a loan from Shylock, and Shylock displays the full force of his animosity, Antonio does not restrain himself from denigrating Shylock -- even as "the devil." Of course, Antonio is here providing a general saying, but the thinly veiled implication is that Shylock is functioning as the devilish figure in this interaction. Antonio has, at other occasions, more directly spat on Shylock or referred to him as a dog, so this wording is perhaps unsurprising. 

It also, though, emphasizes the extent to which the Jewish and Christian communities in this play isolate themselves from each other theologically. The devil is the common enemy of both religious traditions, but in this colloquial saying, Antonio is associating Shylock with the devil.

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Many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 1.3.116-123
Explanation and Analysis:

As in many other moments of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock here describes the type of prejudice and discrimination that he faces, and that "all our tribe" faces, in Venice. Yet here Shylock also explains that the very individuals who denigrate him as a "misbeliever" or "cut-throat dog," also use him as a money-lender, borrowing his own funds -- "that which is mine own." Shylock exposes the unfortunate contradiction that Venetians mistreat the individuals whom they need, the money-lenders who fulfill an essential and respectable function in society. The injustices he lists here also serve to make Shylock a more complex character -- one who is portrayed as a caricatural villain, but who has possibly been made that way by the prejudice of a "Christian" society.

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.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 1.3.160-163
Explanation and Analysis:

While Shylock is bartering with Antonio and Bassanio in order to arrange their new loan, he decides to ask for an unusual form of repayment, should Antonio default on the loan: a pound of Antonio's flesh. This strange request captures the way that human actors are intrinsically associated with their financial means in this play, but it also provides a platform for subsequent reflections on honesty (would Antonio truly allow his blood to be spilt over a legal agreement?), mercy (might Shylock be overcome with mercy shortly before he would witness Antonio become injured), and violence (would this act of violence be enough to satiate Shylock's lust for revenge)? 

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun.
Related Characters: Prince of Morocco (speaker), Portia
Page Number: 2.1.1-2
Explanation and Analysis:

The Prince of Morocco's first words to Portia are an earnest request to refrain from judging his physical appearance -- specifically, his dark "complexion," the physical aspect tied to racial and social categorization. He has clearly faced prejudice and dehumanization before, and so immediately apologizes for himself in the face of society's disapproval. But although the prince begins with this entreaty, he will adopt a more defensive and affirmative stance by the end of his speech: "I would not change this hue, / Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen." Here, the prince echoes Skylock's conflicting confidence and concerns over discrimination, suggesting that this process of adapting to stereotyping extends through the play's different forms of categorization and separation.

 

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 3.1.52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Salarino claims to be "sure" that Shylock will not take Antonio's flesh because there is no clear use for Antonio's skin and blood (as Salarino implies with his blunt question "what's that good for?"). Shylock glibly comments that Antonio's flesh could be used to "bait fish," before he more directly claims that Antonio's flesh would "feed my revenge." It would allow Shylock to finally avenge the way that Antonio and others mistreat him (and other members of the Jewish community). By claiming that acts of vengeance would "feed" his revenge, Shylock implies that revenge is a natural human desire, like sexual desire or physical hunger -- and it is sated not by anything technically "useful," but only by inflicting more pain and spreading one's bitterness to others.

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.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.57-67
Explanation and Analysis:

In the street, Shylock converses with Salanio and Salarino. He discusses his daughter Jessica's sudden leaving, and Salarino asks whether Antonio has lost his wealth at sea, from shipwrecks. Shylock comments that he will indeed seek a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio cannot repay his debt. After Salarino expresses his surprise, asking how Shylock could actually use Antonio's flesh for any purpose, Shylock quickly replies that Antonio's flesh could bait fish -- and suit his lust for revenge. Shylock describes that he has a drive for revenge, as any other individual supposedly does, and then gives us this famous declaration that Jewish individuals are largely the same as any others. 

This plea for the Jewish people is thereby inscribed within Shylock's lust for revenge, and should not be taken out of context. Although The Merchant of Venice does certainly include Shylock's passionate defenses of himself and of his people, this message against stereotypes is tainted by its association with Shylock's individual bloodthirsty personality. The play does not form a clear platform for crying out against anti-Semitism, although it certainly depicts the prejudice that confronts a people of individuals, which perhaps unfortunately includes Shylock.

The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.70-72
Explanation and Analysis:
As Shylock closes his defense of his behavior, and his larger declaration that Jewish and Christian peoples are not as different as they seem to be in Venice, he claims that he has learned his lust for greed and revenge from the Christian individuals who have so mistreated him. He suggests that his own behavior is a reaction to the intolerance which he has faced and which he is currently confronting. He alludes to the fact that Venice's current social currents have been prefaced by prior stigmatization and discrimination, and this perspective certainly makes him a more complicated and sympathetic character than he may have initially appeared to be. 
Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Shylock, Antonio
Page Number: 4.1.176
Explanation and Analysis:

As Portia is pretending to be a young lawyer, she asks one of the most simple yet central questions of he play: who is the Jew, and who is the merchant? This suggests that Jews are so defined by their religious and ethnic identities that their Jewishness obfuscates their professional roles; thus, we see the play's prejudices. More broadly, though, this moment captures the importance of societal functions in constructing an individual's identity. A person's identity is always somewhat questionable and ambiguous because it only exists in relation to other phenomena and systems of exchange larger than any one person. Arguably, Shylock is only the dehumanized "Jew" because society has forced him to play that role, while Antonio has been able to inhabit the more socially-approved role of "merchant."

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.390-393
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the Duke has declared that half of Shylock's wealth will go to Antonio and the other half will go to the state, Shylock, in his dismay, provides a powerful description of the connection between one's life and one's wealth. He claims that his property sustains his life, so taking his property is the same as taking his life. Similarly, for Shylock, his wealth sustains his property, so an individual takes his property by taking his wealth. Here, Shylock articulates an indirect but powerful link between his life and his wealth, a direct correspondence which is not surprising given Shylock's generally greedy nature and concern with material possessions. Yet, after Shylock utters this statement, Portia immediately asks Antonio what "mercy" he might render Shylock, continuing to insert the notion of mercy into the courtroom even while simultaneously doling out arguably cruel, unmerciful punishments to Shylock. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
Related Characters: Lorenzo (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.92-97
Explanation and Analysis:

After musicians play for the lovers Jessica and Lorenzo, Lorenzo declares that people who are not moved by music are the worst kind, the kind who deserve the worst that others have to offer them ("treasons, stratagems, and spoils"). This exclamation does more than just continue to reflect on the properties of music, and music's associations with love and goodness; it invites questions about who might deserve violence, and why. Does one deserve violence for being an intrinsically malignant individual, a character such as Shylock who is unmoved by others' pleas? Or, does one deserve such negative consequences for specific actions, for breaking specific agreements? This play raises questions about who should be culpable, and why, but does not answer them -- even the relatively virtuous Bassanio and Gratiano (as well as Portia and Nerissa) break promises to their respective lovers.