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Depiction of Religious and Racial Prejudice in The Merchant of Venice

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It is said that “Prejudice is a learned trait, you’re not born prejudiced; you’re taught it.” Within Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ and past society, religious prejudice and prejudice based on ethnicity were social beliefs and people were consciously making these choices to be discriminatory. People were taught that certain groups and races are greater, while other groups are beneath the ‘superior’ race. ‘Merchant of Venice’ added onto the bias’ towards people of Jewish faith and who have a dark complexion and gave insight to what these ethnicities experienced. This is seen through Shakespeare’s representation of the characters of Morocco and Shylock and how statements and reactions of other characters in the play were made prejudiced towards both of these characters. These social beliefs in past society continued in people’s minds, while they may not have been fully aware, but it influenced thoughts and feelings until it evolved into stereotypes and facts. Because these social beliefs continued subconsciously, modern society’s views and beliefs were influenced, the discrimination that certain ethnicities had faced before, are still very relevant now. It is now clear that, religious and racial prejudice is a problem which deteriorates one’s views and gives people the inability to recognize and embrace the differences in others, this is seen in the play through actions and remarks specifically aimed at the characters of Morocco and Shylock which was created through social beliefs, and continues subconsciously in modern society based on these religious and ethnic bias’. 

Anti-semitism is defined as, “the hostility to or prejudice against Jews.” Throughout the play, the main character, Shylock, experiences this type of hostility, but this type of prejudice existed long before the play was written. The bias’ created towards Jewish people was created during the biblical times and within the Bible, there are conversations that put Jewish people in the wrong light and made them appear to be more of an incoherent ethnicity. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved — so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last! This quote from the Bible is painting Jewish people as being evil and saying that these people will stay accursed for many more lifetimes to come. It is stating that Jewish people are the reason for the death of Jesus and many prophets, as well as celebrating the punishments and immense anguish which they will face for centuries to come hereafter. The language used has shown that the person who wrote this is Christian, or thinks of Christians as being more superior than Jewish people, and believes that Christians have “God on their side.” Christians have prolonged the cruelty that Jewish people have faced for a long time and they are considered adversaries of all of mankind. These types of passages and writings in the Bible have tremendously contributed to the way Jewish people are seen not just in past society but in modern society as well. These texts have created social beliefs which were adapted by writers such as Shakespeare, who made the character of Shylock to represent what Jewish people faced regularly. 

In the play, Antonio states, “Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind.” Antonio is making a comment towards Shylock in which he is trying to say that Shylock cannot be gentle because he is a Jew. It is apparent that only Christians can be nice while Jewish people can only be rude and never gentle. This social belief has had so much of an impact on people, that Antonio is not able to recognize the fact that Shylock is not entirely evil and that he can be cordial if he wants to be, comparable to any other human. Being a specific race/ethnicity does not make someone more exceptional and throughout the play, the idea is that Christianity is the superior ethnicity. Christians believe that they’re entitled to more and they should be given higher status in terms of the way other religions treat them. An example of this is shown in the exchange between the Duke of Venice and Shylock: 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 lose the forfeiture But, touched with human gentleness and love, Forgive a moi’ty of the principal. From this quote one is able to decipher that the Duke of Venice is expecting Shylock to show remorse or mercy for Antonio because he is a Christian he deserves, but Shylock was never shown sympathy and compassion which he “should” be showing Antonio. So, this social belief has had a great impact on the mindset of many religions, making some ethnicities feel that they are more empowered while other ethnicities feel powerless and anemic. 

These remarks that are made towards Shylock present how society functioned and its mentality towards Jewish people as a whole. The commonality within this time showed prejudice towards Jewish people based on a social belief, and the character of Shylock has experienced this ethnic bias’ the most from any character in the play because he is a Jewish person. He constantly stuck to his beliefs and views yet he was still made the antagonist of the play because of his identity. Therefore, social beliefs do have an effect on one’s actions and views whether they are subconscious or conscious, and they have caused people to lack perceiving and accepting another group’s diversity, such as Shylock who has been treated unjustly many times throughout the play. “Racism is taught in our society, it is not automatic. It is learned behaviour toward persons with dissimilar physical characteristics.” Within the play, the character of Morocco experienced racial prejudice based on his complexion based on a social belief which had existed prior to when the play had been written. In the 1600s before the play was written, people of a darker complexion were regarded as slaves which added onto the bias’ that these people are beneath the “preferable” race. There are statements within the Bible that have added to this racial bigotry within the past society. It is claimed that not only the slavery of blacks was in fulfillment of this Biblical curse, but their black skin colour is too. Thus many whites have been led to assume that blacks are inferior and that God meant for them to be the servants of whites. Many blacks became embittered by the treatment that they received as a result of this religious interpretation. Since people have a darker complexion, they are meant to be the attendants of people of a lighter complexion because it is said that this is what “God meant for them to be.” 

Portia’s conversations and dialogues about Morocco and people of a darker complexion showed that she regarded herself as being the “greater” person/race. Evidence of this is found when Portia states, “A gentle riddance.—Draw the curtains, go.— Let all of his complexion choose me so.” She regards herself as being higher than the people of Morocco’s complexion and she believes that she is too remarkable to marry anyone of a dark complexion. Another example of this would be when Portia declares, “If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” In this quote, Portia has made a comment on Morocco’s appearance claiming that even if he is a good person but he has a dark appearance, similar to that of the devil, then she would rather have had him hear her confession, her thoughts of the colour of his skin rather than have him marry her. This quote has shown that people such as Portia who are very intelligent and wise, can still show prejudice towards another group based on a social belief which has impaired the intellect of many people. So, one is able to establish that Morocco has experienced racial prejudice because of a social belief created about races that have a darker complexion before the play took place, which had influenced the mindset of many people during this time. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” 

As we have seen throughout the play, characters have been making the conscious choice to be prejudice against religions and races based on social beliefs which had impaired the judgement of certain groups towards others. But how has it continued in our present day? This has happened through our subconscious mind, as we have developed over the centuries certain views have changed but as times went by the social beliefs in past society were found subconsciously within us. One may see themselves as showing impolite behaviour towards someone for no reason at all, this happens because of the way our subconscious mind works. In our modern society, much of the discrimination which characters such as Morocco and Shylock had faced are still a reality. There are stories about anti-semitism and racism towards groups which has created more of a religious and ethnic bias’. Such as how centuries of anti-semitism still exists today with several cases in Europe in which Jewish people have been attacked or some sort of hate crime took place specifically aimed at this group of people. Or how people are regarded as more beautiful than others because they possess physical characteristics such as having a lighter complexion. 

In modern society, social problems such as having differences in pay and wealth amongst certain groups or ethnicities in which they receive better privilege and have a higher status, while others don’t gain the same luxury is a reality. We have seen stories from the 15th and 16th century which have been adapted into our modern culture and have had an impact on our thinking as people. So, when we see all the evidence of how our modern society functions, it is clear that these views and beliefs which continued as conscious social beliefs in the past have now been adapted subconsciously within our present-day affecting our understanding and positions on groups and ethnicities. Has there really been a change in the way our society functions or is everything always based on what the majority was in the past? This question creates controversy amongst many people who have different opinions and notions. But when one examines how religious prejudice and prejudice based on ethnicity existed in past society and modern society it is clear that the play ‘Merchant of Venice’ is still very relevant to our present day. The characters of Morocco and Shylock both experience prejudice because of social beliefs that existed long before the play had come to be. These social beliefs had affected the ideology which people had on these groups and had created stereotypes which was shown through attitudes and demeanour of people. These attitudes which people have has made it hard for one to see past race and religion and see someone’s true self. As generations progressed and human mentality evolved, these social beliefs which people took a conscious effort to show had become subconscious within people’s intellects. As it continued subconsciously in modern society it created a religious and ethnic bias’ which everyone seems to follow whether we notice it or not. What certain ethnicities faced in the past society they face today on a day-to-day basis. 

The play ‘Merchant of Venice’ is important in our present society because it shows us what other ethnicities face and it gives us some insight into how other people can be treated so negatively. From the play, someone in our current civilization can be able to relate to the perceptions which other religions and races may face, so this play has a purpose in contemporary society. So, after identifying the evidence in the play, present society, and previous society it is apparent that the play is still appropriate for our modern audiences. 

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Depiction Of Religious And Racial Prejudice In The Merchant Of Venice. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
“Depiction Of Religious And Racial Prejudice In The Merchant Of Venice.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
Depiction Of Religious And Racial Prejudice In The Merchant Of Venice. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Sept. 2022].
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