In his introduction to The Merchant of Venice, Katherine Maus discusses the controversy that this writing elicits every time a new audience encounters it. She states that there are several ways to interpret the writing that Shakespeare put forth. One way being that he was incredibly anti-Semitic, and that his writing promoted the widely believed stereotypes of many in that time. Another way Shakespeare could have intended The Merchant of Venice to be read is as an ironic criticism of the stereotyping of Jews and Judaism.
I believe that as a playwright, who adequately used all of his resources to incorporate many different cultures into his writings, that Shakespeare intended The Merchant of Venice to be a criticism of antisemitism and even of bigotry as a whole.
By having his play take place in Venice, (which was one of the most tolerant places of its time) and showing Venice to be prosperous in its tolerance of many different cultures coming together to trade, Shakespeare is subtly pointing out that Venice is more prosperous because of this.
Another point to note is that while the character of Shylock embodies many of the racial slurs of the time such as focusing entirely too much on property and money. Also, sometimes to the audience it seems that Shylock may even be placing monetary gain before his own daughters well being. However, there are points where he comes to challenge such stereotypes. For example, when he is distressed over the loss of a keepsake of his deceased wife, this equates him to the audience as a person with feelings, just like everyone else.
Also, Shakespeare draws much attention to his criticism of anti-semitism in the quote; “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”
Shakespeare intends The Merchant of Venice as a social criticism, and means to point out that in the end, everyone is human and deserves to be treated as such.