Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" in the Light of Race and Ethnic Studies

Seminar Paper, 2010

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Racism, anti-Semitism and racist discourse

III. The candidates for Portia’s love

IV. Jessica

V. Shylock
1) Racist discourse directed at him
2) Racist discourse about him
3) Shylock’s motifs
a) Revenge
b) Economical reasons
c) Justice
4) Shylock as a stereotype

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The Merchant of Venice is one of the most interesting plays written by William Shakespeare. It fascinates people since the beginning of the 16th century and provoked manifold appraisals and interpretations. From the beginning the interest concentrated on the character of Shylock the Jew. Although the assessment of this figure has been conflicting and antagonistic in earlier times already, the atrocities of the 20th century gave an urgent actuality and relevance to the questions whether the character of Shylock constitutes the stereotype of the "evil Jew" and whether The Merchant of Venice is therefore a racist and anti-Semitic play.[1] In the aftermath of the Holocaust some people even argued that the play should not be performed anymore especially not in Germany.[2]

The grown sensibility for the effectiveness of excluding Ideologies fortunately led to the development of an academic approach in the form of Race and Ethnic Studies whose findings and theoretical instruments I want to use in this paper to show in which way strangeness in The Merchant of Venice is constructed and defined. To satisfy the account for a global picture of foreignness in the play I will examine all the protagonist who are portrayed as racially different. Nevertheless, the figure of Shylock naturally demands the biggest part of my attention.

I will start by giving a short overview about the findings of Race and Ethnic Studies concerning central concepts like racism, racist discourse or anti-Semitism. In the second part of the paper I will then operate with them on the text.

II. Racism, anti-Semitism and racist discourse

The Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies defines racism as "' the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to congenital inferiority and another group is destined to congenital superiority.'"[3] One could argue that The Merchant of Venice can not be a racist play since the theory of races and the image of Jews as being fundamentally different from “us” are relatively new developments but this would mean to ignore the fact that already in Medieval times Jewish blood was feared to be contaminating pure Christian blood[4] and that "[r]acism [...] does not necessarily involve the concept of race: it may have functional equivalents, culture being one of them."[5]

These dogmas usually materialise in society trough racist discourse, “[...] a form of discriminatory social practice that manifests itself in text, talk and communication. Together with other (non-verbal) discriminatory practices, racist discourse contributes to the reproduction of racism as a form of ethnic or "racial" domination."[6]

Racist discourse appears in two major forms: “1. racist discourse directed at ethnically different Others;”[7] This includes a variety of behaviour patterns of members of dominant social groups, for example “[...] derogatory slurs, insults, impolite forms of address, and others forms of discourse that explicitly express and enact superiority and lack of respect."[8] Aside from this there are the manifold subtle ways of showing a lack of respect, "[...] speakers may refuse to yield the floor to minority speakers, interrupt them inappropriately, ignore the topics suggested by their interlocutors, focus on topics that imply negative properties of the ethnic minority group to which the recipient belongs, speak too loudly, show a bored face, avoid eye contact, use a haughty intonation [...]"[9] and so on.

The second major form of racist discourse is the “racist discourse about ethnically different Others."[10] This includes all discriminatory ways in which the minority is spoken about.

In the following we will see that both forms of racist discourse can easily be found in the Merchant of Venice in a high number.

III. The candidates for Portia’s love

All the suitors preceding Bassanio are portrayed as alien and as national caricatures. The German for example is a confirmed drunkard.[11] This tendency grows even bigger when the more serious aspirants for Portia’s hand, the prince of Morocco and the prince of Arragon, enter the scene. First of all, Morocco mentions the dark colour of his skin[12] whose complexion already marks him as alien an even as morally inferior since Christian theology associated “[...] black skin with sin and the devil [...]”.[13]

Above that, judging from his origin it is obvious that he is a Muslim which must have made Portia and the former audience feel very uncomfortable since cultural identity in the 16th century was defined via the husband. Thus a marriage between Portia and Morocco would mean that Portia is lost for Christianity.[14] Besides this menace Morocco is portrayed as a stereotypical libidinous Arab pointed out by his lines:

" I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine

Hath fear'd the valiant: by my love I swear

The best-regarded virgins of our clime

Have loved it too: I would not change this hue [...]"[15]

Arragon on the other hand represented the Spanish archenemy of England for a contemporary audience. Both suitors fail to choose the right casket due to personal defects. Morocco can not distinguish between illusion and reality and is guided by his haughtiness. He “[...] sees only the outside because he is an outsider.”[16]

Arragon’s decision in turn is controlled by his vain. The casket lottery is a test of character and both peers fail which marks a victory against the political, religious and cultural enemies, against the others.[17]

According to their oath Morocco and Arragon have to remain unmarried. The question of belonging and membership is decided via the right of reproduction, a motif which will appear several times in the play.[18]


[1] cf. Schülting, Sabine. “Shylock geht- und immer kehrt er wieder“Shakespeares Dramen. Ed. Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. GmbH Co. , 2000. P.130

[2] cf. Schülting. P.129

[3] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies, Ellis Cashmore, 2004, Routledge New York P.349

[4] O’Rourke, James. "Racism and Homophobia in The Merchant of Venice"ELH 70 (2004): P. 383

[5] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies.P. 96

[6] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies. P. 351

[7] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies. P. 351

[8] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies. P. 351

[9] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies. P 351

[10] Encyclopedia of race and ethnic studies. P. 351

[11] Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice / Der Kaufmann von Venedig. Bern: A. Francke AG Verlag, 1982.I. 2,79-83

[12] Shakespeare. II.1,1

[13] Kaplan, Lindsay M. “Jessica’s Mother: Medieval Constructions of Jewish Race and Gender in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 58.1 (2007):P. 4

[14] cf. Schülting. P.143

[15] Shakespeare. II.1,8-10

[16] Spiller, Elizabeth A. “From Imagination to Miscegenation: Race and Romance in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” Renaissance Drama (2000): P. 149

[17] cf. Schülting. P.142

[18] cf. Schülting. P.145

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" in the Light of Race and Ethnic Studies
University of Trier  (Fachbereich Anglistik)
(British) Literary Theory in Practice: Shakespeare
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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478 KB
Shakespeare, Shylock, Antisemitismus, Ethnic Studies, Race Studies, Venedig, Zinsverbot, Ritualmord, Postmoderne, Identität
Quote paper
Christoph Dähling (Author), 2010, Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" in the Light of Race and Ethnic Studies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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