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.
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.