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VeniceAMicrocosmofInequality

InWilliamShakespearesTheMerchantofVenice,Shylockproclaims,Ifyou
wrongus,shallwenotrevenge?Ifwearelikeyouintherest,wewillresembleyouin
that...Revenge(Shakespeare99).TheJewishmoneylenderisavictimofonerous
ChristianabuseasaresultofthesocietalperceptionthatallJewsaresubhumaninfidels.
Oppressorspushthesubjugatedtoofar.Inequalitybreedssuchvehementdissension.The
resultantimpactofthediscordantsocietyisthediscontentitbreedsamongtheopressed,
unfairsocialboundaries,andegregiousstereotypes.Thevariousinequitiesofthe
Venetiancommunityincluderacialprejudice,antiSemitism,andgenderinequality.
Thosewhoarecontinuallyoppressedinanunequalsocietywillinevitablyattempt
togetthebetteroftheiroppressors.TheplaysmainconflictbetweenAntonioand
Shylockexemplifiesthisphenomenon.Shylocksays,Illhavemybond.Speaknot
againstmybond./IhaveswornanoaththatIwillhavemybond./Thoucalledstmedog
beforethouhadstacause./ButsinceIamadog,bewaremyfangs./Thedukeshallgrant
mejustice(125).Fromthebeginningoftheplaywearecontinuallyremindedoftheone
sidedandcruelnatureoftheJewandChristiansrelationship.Antoniooftenspewsanti
SemiticinsultsatShylock,callinghimacurandadevil,aswellasphysicallyabusing
him.Shylockbearsthishardilyformostoftheplayuntilhereceiveshischancetoexact
brutalrevengeuponthemerchant;hegetstotakeapoundofAntoniosflesh.Hetakes
thisopportunitywithperverseenthusiasmashewillfinallygetrevengeforthedamage
hehassufferedatAntonioshands.Shylocksonetrackmindonlyallowshimtothinkof
howhecangethisbondandnothingelse.Heswearstousethecourtstoenforceitand

willstopatnothingtofollowtheletterofthelawsoastopunishAntonio.Portiaand
Nerissastrickeryregardingtheringstheygavetotheirhusbandsisalsoagoodexample.
AfterBassaniowedsPortia,shegiveshimaspecialringandmakeshimpromisetonever
partwithit.Shelaterforceshimtogiveuphisringwhiledressedasthelawyerwho
savedAntonioslife.WhenBassanioreturnsfromVenicewithouthisringPortiatoys
withherhusbandsmind,initiallythreateningtobeunfaithfulandpunishBassanioforhis
actions.However,latersherelentsandrevealsall,sayingSpeaknotsogrossly.You
areallamazed./Hereisaletter.Readitatyourleisure./ItcomesfromPadua,from
Bellario./ThereyoushallfindthatPortiawasthedoctor,/Nerissathereherclerk(201).
Althoughsheisawomanandconfinedbysocietysrulesshenonethelesstriestomake
clearhowsuperiorherintelligenceistothatofherhusbandbytrickinghimandlater
revealingherploytomakeafooloutofhim.IntheendPortiaoutsmartsherhusbandand
provesthatsheisevermorewisethananyofthesociallyprivilegedmeninthestory.
Fromtheseexampleswecanseethatthosewhoareoppressedwilltrytogetthebetterof
theiroppressorsthroughtheletterofthelaw,orevensimpledeception.
SpeciousnessisalsopainfullyevidentinVenice.Adiscordantsocietyperpetuates
stereotypesofcertainculturesorracesandstrengthensitsownspeciousnature.Examples
ofsuchracialorethnicstereotypesarepresentthroughouttheplay.Probablythemost
commonexampleswouldbethereferencestopeopleofdarkskin.Itiscontinuallystated
invariouswaysthroughouttheplaythatpalenessisaprerequisiteforbeautyandthatif
onehasdarkskinoneisuglyanddevilishinappearance.ForexampleinBassanios
monologueduringhischoosingofthecasketshestates,Thusornamentisbuttheguiled

shore/Toamostdangeroussea,thebeauteousscarf/VeilinganIndianBeauty(109).
Bassanioisviewingthegoldcasketandmakinghispointabouthowthingsthatare
beautifulontheexteriorcaninrealitybeuglyontheinterior.Hepointstohowonecan
wearabeautifulscarfbutinrealitybejustanotherdarkskinnedpersonattemptingtoveil
howuglytheyare.ThisrevealsthesuperficialandratherunfairVenetianstandardof
beauty.Bassanioinsinuatesthatonemustbepaleskinnedinordertobeconsidered
attractive.ThePrinceofMoroccosvisittoBelmontinthesecondactprovesallthemore
howdeeplystereotypesareentrenchedinVenetiansociety.WhenhearrivesinBelmont,
hisfirstwordsare,Mislikemenotformycomplexion,/Theshadowedliveryofthe
burnish'dsun,/TowhomIamaneighbor,andnearbred/Bringmethefairestcreature
northwardborn,/WherePhoebus'firescarcethawstheicicles,/Andletusmakeincision
foryourlove/Toprovewhosebloodisreddest,hisormine(43).ThePrinceofa
sovereignnationissoashamedofhisskincolorandthenegativelightitputshiminthat
hefeelstheneedtoapologizetoawomanofinferiorstatureforit,beforethe
conversationevenstarts.Healsofeelscompelledtomakeclaimthathewouldbewilling
tocuthimselftoprovehisbloodisjustasredasanywhitemans(redbloodsignified
courage.Africanswereconsideredtobedeviousandcowardly).Amanofgreatstanding
andwealthisreducedtoapologiesandjustificationsforhisskintone.
Societysdiscriminationcanalsohaverestrictivesociopoliticalimpacts.When
peopleofspecificethnicorsocioeconomicbracketsaremarginalized,theyareunjustly
confinedtocertainoccupationsorsocietalrolesthatinhibittheirabilitytoenterthesocial
mainstream.Shylockssituationisaperfectexample.HeaccusesAntoniobysaying,

SignorAntonio,manyatimeandoft/IntheRialtoyouhaveratedme/Aboutmy
moneysandmyusances./StillhaveIborneitwithapatientshrug,/Forsufferanceisthe
badgeofallourtribe./Youcallmemisbeliever,cutthroatdog,/AndspetuponmyJewish
gaberdine/Andallforuseofthatwhichismineown.(35).Antoniohasabused
Shylockonmanyoccasions,allforthereasonthatShylockchargesinterest.Jewsin
Venicewereonlypermittedtohavetheoccupationofmoneylenderandtheonlywayfor
themtomakeprofitinthisprofessionwasusury.Thiswasconsideredanunchristian
practiceandwaslargelyabhorredbyallexceptmoneylenders.Exorbitantinterestrates
causedpeopletohatemoneylendingestablishmentsandconsequentiallytheJewswho
ranthem.TheJewshadnochoicebuttobearthisinherenthatredoftheirprofession
(Forsufferanceisthebadgeofallourtribe/StillIhaveborneitwithapatientshrug
(35)).SocietyforcedJewsintoapositionwheretheywouldbehated.Womenarenot
exceptionstoVenetiansocietyssocialmarginalizationeither.Inthetimeperiodwhen
TheMerchantofVenicetakesplacewomenwereconsideredtobeoffragilemindand
thuswerenotallowedtoholdjobsorexittheirhomesastheypleased.Forexample,in
orderforPortiatogotocourtandsaveAntoniofromcertaindeathatShylockshands,
sheneedstomasqueradeasaman.Shesays,Theyshall,Nerissa,butinsuchahabit/
Thattheyshallthinkweareaccomplished/Withthatwelack.Illholdtheeany
wager,/Whenwearebothaccoutredlikeyoungmen,/ThatmenshallswearIhave
discontinuedschool/Aboveatwelvemonth.(131).Crossdressingisnecessarysince
Portiaisabouttoappearasamemberofamaleprofession(law),wherebackintheday,
womenhadnoplace.Despitemanywomen,likePortia,beingtheintellectualequalsor

superiorsoftheirmalecounterpartstheyarepreventedfromenteringmainstreamlifeas
socialequalsduetotheirlowstanding.
TheinequalityinVenetiansocietyislargelyonethatismercantileinnature.
Women,blacks,andJewsareallmarginalizedinsocietyandtreatedassocialinferiors
becauseitreduceseconomicconflictbetweenthemajorityandthevariousminorities.
However,thisbreedshatred,racism,andsocialconfinesthatpreventsoverall
socioeconomicgrowth.Thissocialstructuredividespeoplealongunfairlinesanddoes
notenduphappilyforanyone.EventhoughShylockhasthelawonhissideagainst
Antonio,thedeckisstackedagainsthim,withapartialjudgeandlawyeragainsthim.
AlthoughAntonioisarichandsuccessfulmerchant,hecomeswithinaninchoflosing
hislifeduetohisfoolishness.BassanioandGratianotaketheirwiveslightly,andthetwo
womenarequicktomaketheiregossufferforit.Inadiscordantsocietythatisatodds
withthecelestialharmoniesoftheuniverse,therecanbenowinners.

WORKSCITED
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York City:
Washington Square, 1992. Print.