The Merchant of Venice is largely concerned with marginalized peoples. Race, religion, social status, and gender were all used in 16th century England (as they are still used in many places today) as reasons to to deny people basic human rights and fair treatment. Shakespeare seems surprisingly ahead of his time though, in having one of his characters, Shylock, outline some atrocities of slavery:
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
‘Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they under their burdens? Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands.’ You will answer
‘The slaves our ours.’ So do I answer you.
Shylock wants to exact revenge on Antonio and press payment of the bond Antonio agreed to, namely, one pound of Antonio’s flesh. The ‘Christian’ people’s outrage at this seemingly blood-thirsty request is effectively answered by Shylock with the above speech through which Shakespeare basically shows slavery to be equivalent to the bloody cutting of a chunk of someone’s flesh! Not a particularly pleasant comment on slavery. So, while this speech falls short of explicit anti-slavery sentiment, it is a strong questioning of the morality of slavery and its damaging effects upon individuals and society. It also raises the question of equality – who determines human equality, and why? What gives humans the right to take the rights of other humans? Money? That is what Shylock insists upon, and although that is what the ‘Christians’ say is wrong, it is what they do, as pointed out by Shylock with the instance of slavery.
In a time when slavery was still relatively new, this was gutsy for Shakespeare to do, particularly because many of his powerful patrons (including the Queen) had invested in slave voyages or were supportive of slavery. Also, Shakespeare’s plays were highly censored, and any perceived threat to the Queen’s rule would be severely punished.
According to the handy timeline presented at Shakespeare Online, The Merchant of Venice was first performed sometime between 1596-1597, and it was first published around 1600. Slavery had been introduced to England by a man called John Hawkins – an explorer hero of the times – who commanded the first slave voyages to Africa around 1560. So since slavery had been going on for roughly thiry-eight years at the time of the Merchant of Venice‘s first performances, the slave trade would have been fairly well-established by the time Shakespeae wrote the play .
These first voyages were financed by London merchants and supported by the Queen and her court, according to an article published at antislavery.org. On these voyages, African villages were raided and their residents captured and brought to Spanish colonies where they were then sold for an incredible profit. These voyages continued, but it was not until the 17th century that the British slave trade became well-established, and some slaves were brought to England. But it would not be until the 17th century that anti-slavery views would begin to be circulated. And the abolitionist movement would not get well underway until the 18th century.
So Shakespeare essentially confronts a newly-developing social practice and presents very insightful questions (ones that would not be raised again for some time) on a relatively new practice of his time. I’m sure it made some people squirm uncomfortably. And, by now, I should be used to him doing that. After all, he does it quite well, especially in The Merchant of Venice.