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The Merchant of Venice is a painful read—much more than Shakespeare’s other plays—because it portrays oppression without taking a stance one way or the other. Portia is undermined by societal gender inequalities, the Prince of Morocco battles racism, and Shylock was written so audiences could dislike him on the basis of his Jewishness and his occupation. However, this prejudice is what makes the play so important to read and reflect upon. The reasoning behind censorship is to protect students from controversial and politically incorrect views, but it is counterproductive to omit topics from a classroom rather than using them as a vehicle for raising awareness. Learning about structural oppression is discouraging, overwhelming, and maddening, but discussion can encourage people to step beyond guilt and anger and begin to think about how to reduce oppression. Since school provides a controlled, secure, and informative learning environment for people, it should be used to broaden discussion about social issues that continue into our postmodern society. Works of literature that provide a variety of viewpoints, even unethical ones, are fundamental to intellectual growth. As long as there is discourse and criticism about the amoral or unethical opinions in such stories, they should be mandatory reads in schools. The Merchant of Venice, with its strong anti-Semitism, underlying sexism, and blatant racism, is a perfect resource for students to clearly understand the societal and interpersonal workings behind prejudice in the real world.
The Prince of Morocco’s black skin is maligned before the character actually appears on stage for himself, further contributing to the racial stigma against people of color in Shakespeare’s time. Portia treats the Prince’s skin color, a physical and uncontrollable factor, more as a negative personality trait. She treats him and his country as “others,” or people so foreign they are practically uncivilized compared to the main characters of the play. “If I could bid the fifth welcome with so good heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should be glad of his approach; if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (1.3.127-131). Here, she says she would never want to marry the Prince of Morocco, even if he were a “saint” (1.3.130), because the prince has a dark complexion like “the devil” (1.3.130). Her nonchalant and casual racial intolerance is cruel because she unfairly judges the Prince based on his physical differences while she dismissed potential white suitors based on flawed character traits. Even the Prince shames his own skin color, his opening line being “mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1). In Shakespeare’s day, black men were often associated with evil, thus often filling the role of the villain. In today’s society, blackness is still associated with corruptness, poverty, and malice, and dark-skinned people are still rarely seen in protagonist positions in modern media. There is an implicit racial hierarchy broadcasted throughout media history, reflecting the systematic racism interwoven into our society over centuries. Whether media portrays superheroes, animated animals, fairies or cars, this same racial pyramid persists through the realm: white or white-voiced characters at the top and other ethnicities below with the darkest-skinned at the bottom. Audiences soak in this unspoken and virtually undetectable racism, and how diversity is portrayed on screen, on a stage, or in a play is a big part in learning this prejudice. Allowing discussion and criticism of the discrimination committed against the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice is a way to countermand the continued dehumanization of people of color in media and its translation in the real-world.
Shakespeare portrays his female characters as victims of a patriarchal society, their characters conveying the restrictions placed on women. Portia’s father’s power over his daughter, even in death, demonstrates the control men have in the affairs of women, as though they were property rather than human beings: “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). In fact, when describing the test the suitors must undertake, she says “If you choose that wherein I am contained, straight shall our nuptial rights be solemnised” (2.9.5-6). Portia is “contained” (2.9.5) in the box, imprisoned by this test her father created to control her. Additionally, women were not allowed in court, yet when Portia dresses up as a man, she is acknowledged as learned and wise. Portia poking fun of each suitor for being drunk or obsessed with his horse compares her high intelligence against her male counterparts’ faults. Even as a witty and intelligent character, she is only able to exercise power and authority when she is under the guise of a male. The female characters achieve their goals better than their husbands’ as “males”, only to return to the clichéd “prize to be won” or the “nagging wife” as females. As a woman, her opinion, personality, and character is negligible compared to her as a man. Throughout history, the majority of anonymous writers, artists, and workers have been female; otherwise, their work would have gone unnoticed and discarded. Confronting the structured gender roles and sexist ideals that are rooted in historical circumstances needs a clear example on what sexism looks like.
The Merchant of Venice supports anti-Semitism by depicting Shylock as a stereotypical greedy Jewish moneylender intending to usurp the “good” Christian character. Shylock’s suggestion that a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment, reminds Shakespeare’s 16th century audience of the false stories about murderous Jews seeking Christian blood for religious rituals. Shylock is driven by an inherent cruelty based on the current time period’s loathing for Jewish people. In an aside, Shylock describes his nemesis, Antonio, “How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian” (1.3.41-42). Shylock has shown himself to be just as hateful and spiteful as Antonio—the only difference between the two is that Shylock is not just an old moneylender being tried in court, but the vilified stereotype of an entire religion. Greedy, pitiless, and obsessed with the letter of the law, he chooses to turn away from Christ’s clemency and not take Antonio’s flesh, and thus condemns himself and his religion. Shakespeare meant to contrast the kind main Christian characters with the vindictive Jew, who lacks the ability to comprehend mercy. Also, by sentencing Shylock and giving Antonio a happy ending, Shakespeare condones the racist actions committed against Shylock, including calling him a “misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (1.3.121-122). Thus, Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock in the play reinforces the stereotype of Jews as bloodthirsty and avaricious. Throughout history, Jews have been blamed for everything from the attacks on the Twin Towers to the Iraq War to natural disasters, leading to hate crimes such as the Holocaust. The continual persecution of Jews calls for the need to discuss the depiction of Jews in literature. Learning about the causes and consequences of anti-Semitism lays the foundation for discussion of the issues in the real world.
While times have changed greatly since The Merchant of Venice was first performed, the same social issues still stand. Throughout history, people have written literature to knowingly or unknowingly portray the views and culture of their time. Texts and stories are never “just books”; they are an outlet for discussion and reflection on people’s views about the past, present, or future. The only way to eradicate ignorance is to look through the lens of the ignorant himself. However, when negative portrayals of minorities are read without or critical analysis, students accept such depictions as accurate. Criticizing stereotypes offers students an opportunity to observe and analyze them. Reading The Merchant of Venice in school helps examine the historic and modern roots of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism and empowers students to question and overcome stereotypical and negative conceptions.
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