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Christians and Jews

The first exchange between Antonio and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1.3.116) reveals much about their characters, their motivations and the themes of the play. For example, Shylock is clearly less motivated by money and greed, the typical ingredients of antisemitic prejudice, than by anger at having been personally and publicly insulted by Antonio. And Antonio, who was previously shown to be a generous, self-sacrificing Christian in his relationship with Bassanio, is revealed here to be the antithesis of a Christian toward Shylock. He not only agrees that he did spit on Shylock publicly but that he will do it again, and for no other apparent reason than that Shylock is a Jew. The fact that Shylock loans money at interest and Antonio has loaned money interest-free is hardly justification for his treatment of Shylock. But what were Shakespeare's motivations for writing this scene? Was he endorsing Antonio's behavior or was he holding it up to the audience as a mirror of their own prejudices? Act One only introduces these questions.

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Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

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