In The Merchant of Venice, Judaism and Christianity aren't just religions – they're constructed as racial (and even national) identities as well. In its portrayal of a bloodthirsty Jewish moneylender, the play famously dramatizes 16th century racial stereotypes that are deeply unsettling, especially for modern audiences. While there's no doubt the play depicts anti-Semitism, literary critics are divided over the question of whether or not the play itself endorses racism.
Questions About Race
- Characters like Antonio are unapologetically racist, but does the play endorse anti-Semitism?
- Is Shylock ever portrayed as a character we should sympathize with?
- Why doesn't Portia like the Prince of Morocco?
- Why does Jessica flee her father's house?
Money is a very big deal in this play. (Big surprise there, right? The plot revolves around a Venetian
merchant who can't repay a loan to a hated moneylender.) In much of The Merchant of Venice, the characters' attitudes toward wealth, mercantilism, and usury (lending money with interest) function as a way to differentiate between Christians and Jews. The Christians in the play are portrayed as generous and even careless with their fortunes. The money-grubbing Shylock, on the other hand, is accused of caring more for his ducats than human relationships. At the same time, there's textual evidence to suggest that Shakespeare calls these stereotypes into question.
Questions About Wealth
- Is Bassanio using Antonio for his money? If so, is he aware of it? Is Antonio?
- Is Portia a fully realized character or just an object of wealth? Does she realize that Bassanio pursued her because of his problems with debt? Does it matter to her?
- Describe the Christian attitude toward usury in the play.