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
Prejudice and Intolerance Quotes in The Merchant of Venice
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.
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.