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The Merchant Of Venice - Shylock: Villain Or Victim? Essay

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Many people are villainous in the way they behave. Their villainous acts may be attributed to their desire to destroy others and in turn elevate themselves to a higher financial or social level. However, the root cause of their villainy may be a response to the treatment they have endured at the hands of others. In short, they have been taught villainy, rather than it being an integral part of their personality. In such instances, revenge can be a key motivator in inspiring them to act in a villainous way. It is on such occasions, where villains have themselves been exposed to villainy, that the distinction between villain and victim becomes blurred. Victims are usually characterised in the way that they are persecuted for circumstances, which are beyond their control for example their appearance. In plays and novels, the victim is sometimes a character included to highlight the prejudices and pre-conceptions of the social climate in which the play or novel was written. In the ‘Merchant of Venice’ it can be argued that Shylocks character undergoes a metamorphosis from villain to victim. However, in this essay I hope to discuss whether in fact Shylock can be defined as either villain or victim and to form an opinion of what Shakespeare intended.

First we shall look at the aspects of the text that portray Shylock as a villain. We are first introduced to Shylock in Act I Scene iii where we learn of his usury. It is in this scene that Bassanio seeks Shylock out and asks to borrow money from him in Antonio’s name. Also in this scene do we learn of Shylock’s hatred for Antonio and the Christians:
‘ How like a fawning publican he looks! / I hate him for he is a Christian; ’
(Act I Scene iii)

Shylock also displays elements of belligerence in his refusal to ever forgive the Christians. We also learn of his intent regarding Antonio’s life:
‘ If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.’ (Act I Scene iii)

Shylock also shows himself to be devious and cunning by hiding his hatred beneath a façade of friendship in order to entice Antonio to become indebted to him, not just with money but with his life. Antonio is very naïve regarding the terms of the bond taking the ‘pound of flesh’ clause to be a show of friendship not hatred:
‘ The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.’ (Act I Scene iii)

Perhaps he receives the terms...


... middle of paper ...


...uted among his sworn enemies. Although Shylock pursues his revenge fervently he still has the audience’s sympathy because of the unfair and harsh punishment he receives. It strikes a modern day audience as grossly unfair that the severity of his punishment reflects not his crime, but his race. He is a victim of the Christians’ intolerance of other races and ideas.

In conclusion, I feel that ultimately Shylock is a villain. The way he treats those he is close to, for example his daughter Jessica exposes his vindictive and ultimately evil character. He lets his lust for vengeance engulf all other aspects of his life and his complete lack of mercy towards Antonio renders him a villain in the eyes of the audience.

We can only guess at the way in which Shakespeare intended Shylock to be portrayed. I feel that Shakespeare intended Shylock to be victim, he was created to challenge the pre-conceptions and ideologies of the Elizabethan era. Having said this, I feel personally that it is not productive for us to simply categorise Shylock as either victim or villain. Through Shylock, Shakespeare explores the way in which the line between the oppressed and the oppressor can become blurred.


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