Prejudice In Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice Essay Example


Throughout William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, multiple aspects of prejudice can be seen from various viewpoints. The meaning of prejudice is preconceived perception which is not founded upon justification or on actual experience. Maya Angelou's quotation defining prejudice is, "Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible." Angelou’s quotation regarding prejudice, translates to the prejudgment established well before relevant material has been obtained or analyzed, rendering it insufficient or fictional evidence. A significant theme of this play, as well as the major conflicts that emerge, are based upon characters which are racially prejudiced and discriminatory. By incorporating characters of diverse cultures in his play, Shakespeare reveals how most people hold prejudiced attitudes about any culture, religion, and ethnicity that is not their own. And by demonstrating how many conflicts, bias views can create in one's life, he proceeds to show the wrong side of prejudices. There are a variety of different behaviors that demonstrate the forms of prejudice in this play, as many prejudicial characters are prejudice to those of a different origin and have different perspectives as them. There are several biases, behaviors, and values that indicate this predominates: firstly, Portia is racially prejudiced towards her suitors who have dark complexions, this attitude of prejudice can be seen with the Prince of Morocco, secondly, Lancelet has prejudiced thoughts about Jewish people, and this behavior is evident when he makes a joke regarding Jessica’s past religion, and Jewish father, and eventually, Antonio is religions-wise prejudice towards Shylock due to his own beliefs of Shylock's religion, and ethnicity, this prejudicial behavior of Antonio is demonstrated throughout the whole play specifically through the way Antonio talks and behaves with Shylock. 

Although Portia is attempting to be the least problematic person with appearances in this play, and is polite to people regardless of gender, race, culture, and religion, her character is also very dishonest, and she is secretly prejudicial and oppressive to those who are not of her own nationality, this is demonstrated by Portia's behavior towards the Prince of Morocco. Portia is, in general, very prejudicial to all her love interests, and cries to Nerissa about the weak characteristics each of them has, she is particularly prejudicial to the Prince of Morocco, as she argues, even if he behaves wonderfully, she still will not be interested in him due to his dark complexion. When the Prince of Morocco arrives and meets Portia, he assures her that she should not be displeased by him or be prejudice against him, as he has the same blood as a man with the fairest skin. Portia then begins to tell him that she does not pick a suitor based on his appearances, in reality she is not driven to choose her own husband at all. When the Prince of Morocco agrees to the terms of Portia's lottery and selects a casket, but fails and leaves, Portia is quite pleased, since her prejudice to those of darker complexions, would not have enabled her to have a successful partnership with the Prince of Morocco. The prejudice feature of Portia is confirmed when the Prince has departed, and she states, "A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.86-87). Which clearly indicates that she wishes for any suitor with his complexion to make the same selection as him. As mentioned, the whole time that the Prince of Morocco is present with Portia, she is unable to see past his complexion, and her prejudicial characteristic is making her insensitive to the positive attributes about him, and, with Portia as an illustration of prejudices, Shakespeare attempts to remind the reader how prejudicial perceptions can blind an individual to the positive side and make the individual concentrate on the negative side. 

In addition, Shakespeare extends this idea of prejudice in his play as he exposes how Lancelet talks to, and teases Jessica about her religion and nationality. Lancelet's character is humorous, and he likes to make himself a comic, but a few of his jokes prove that he is prejudicing Jews, and that he is also racist. Although Lancelet does not like to associate with Shylock, he speaks and jokes with Jessica, and makes a few remarks about Jessica's background that prove his prejudice thoughts about Judaism. Lancelet informs Jessica jokingly, that children are punished for the sins of their fathers, and he says that he's concerned about her, as he thinks that Jessica is going to hell, and he tells her that he believes there's only one hope for her. As Jessica asks him what hope he is talking about, Lancelet says, “Marry, you may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter” (3.5.10-11). And what he means by his statement is that Jessica can only hope that Shylock is not her true father, that her mother may have fooled around, and that she is not the daughter of “the Jew.” Despite Jessica's attempts to stay away from Shylock, to change her religion from Judaism to Christianity, and to marry Lorenzo, a Christian, she still experiences prejudice against her, only because of her background and her Jewish father. By saying how Jessica would go to hell, not because of her sins, but because of her fathers, who is a Jew, and by referring to Shylock as "the Jew," Lancelet reveals that he is anti-Semitic, and that he has religious prejudiced thoughts towards the Jewish community. In conclusion, Lancelet proves himself religious prejudicial when he jokes about Judaism with Jessica and is judging her based on her background and her Jewish father, and not based on who she is as a person, with this illustration, Shakespeare demonstrates how Christian characters, such as Lancelet, use the religion of the Jewish people and make jokes about it, utterly disrespecting it, and having prejudiced thoughts about it. 

Moreover, Antonio, a Christian, is religious prejudiced towards Shylock only because he is a Jew and has a history, religion, and background different from him, not because of Shylock as a human, and this prejudicial attitude of Antonio is proved through his words and actions towards Shylock. Shylock refers to Antonio directly, informing him that Antonio mistreats Shylock because of his religion. This argument occurs when Bassanio requests for a loan from Shylock, using the credit of Antonio. Shylock hates Antonio because of Antonio's prejudice towards him, and because he doesn't like the way Antonio does business. The difference in opinion between Antonio and Shylock sparks Antonio's cruelty towards Shylock and, in return, Shylock's hatred for Antonio. The idea that Antonio is blind to the insensitivity and indignation of his religious slurs is evidenced by the intolerance that is common to their society. Antonio's prejudice to Shylock is evidenced by the fact that Shylock reminds him of all the wrongs he has done to him by insulting his business, calling him a dog, spitting on his Jewish clothing, and kicking him, to which Antonio replies, "I am as like to call thee so again, /To spet on thee again, to spurn thee too" (1.3.140-141). And what Antonio means is that he's going to call Shylock the names again, spit on him, and criticize him again, which simply demonstrates the racial prejudice he has for Jewish people. To conclude, Antonio displays his religious prejudice to Shylock by his actions and his comments to him, and all their dispute is that Antonio is prejudicing Shylock, and Shakespeare, including a character like Antonio in his play, shows the reader how many complications prejudice can bring to one's existence. 

In summary, this play reveals the prejudices individuals carry and how their lives and the lives of those in their society are influenced by it. It shows the many effects of putting labels on people that are different from the standard of society. Shakespeare demonstrates how characters like Portia see themselves as superior to anyone else in society, and have prejudiced thoughts about people that are different from them in nationality or race, how characters like Lancelet are religiously prejudiced, and see all religions that are not their own as a joke, and eventually, characters like Antonio who are religiously prejudiced, and utter hurtful things, and cause trouble just because they dislike the religion of others. No matter what form of prejudice one may have, biases blind a person to facts, and prejudging someone on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion, will make an individual construct an image in their heads, which is not valid in most situations. Overall, by seeing the diverse characters in this play, their different perspectives and the difficulties they encounter, one can see the many negative implications that come with being prejudicial to what is considered "different" from the "normal" in a community.  

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