As If Anti-Semiticism Wasn’t Bad Enough

So, if The Merchant of Venice is not an anti-Semitic play, then it’s peopled by anti-Semites. What’s more is that they’re equal-opportunity racists as well.

While Portia is “fair, and fairer than that word… (with) sunny locks” (I.i.162,169), she is less than fair when she describes her suitors:

  • the Frenchman can only “pass for a man” (I.ii.53-54)
  • the Englishman “hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian” (I.ii.65-66)

    which reminds me of a joke: What do you call a person who knows two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who know three languages? Tri-lingual. What do you call a person who knows only one language? An American.

  • the Scotsman is a weakling having “borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman” (I.ii.75)
  • the German is “drunk” (I.ii.82)
  • the Moroccan has to ask her to “mislike (him) not for (his) complexion” (II.i.1); when he fails the casket test, Portia says, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.79)

Portia believes that “if (the suitor has) the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, (she) had rather he should shrive (her) than wive (her)” (I.ii.124-126). All others, all outsiders, all aliens, need not apply. Only Bassanio is good enough for her,  for even in her memory of a “Venetian” (I.ii.108) she “remember(s) him worthy” (I.ii.115-116).

But it’s not just the fair Portia who looks down upon those of color. When Lorenzo tells Lancelot,

I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than
you can the getting up of the negro's belly. The
Moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

— III.v.33-35

Lorenzo doesn’t name the maid who the clown has impregnated; she doesn’t have a name worth remembering since she–because of her race–is of so little worth. The clown himself admits as much: “But if she be less than an honest woman, she in indeed more than I took her for” (III.v.37-38). She is less than even “less than an honest woman”; she is seen as merely a sperm receptacle for Lancelot.

Even an Italian clown is better than a Moorish maid.

Welcome to Venice… and if you’re not Italian, leave quickly.

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