Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice


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Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice

That Shylock is portrayed as being a typical Jewish businessman is
contentious. There seems to be a lot more to Shylock than first meets
the eye, especially when it comes to his dealings with money and
keeping his word. He has to put up with quite a bit of abuse from
Christians and others. He is a very stubborn person though, and this
seems to be one of his major downfalls within the play. To support my
argument I am going to look at both the views of the Christians and
the Jews from the play, as well as support my views with evidence from
the text. In this essay I will write about the role of Shylock being
perceived as a typical Jewish businessman and how the character would
have an effect on a Elizabethan audience, and how times and the
attitudes towards Jews have changed.

One of the main storylines in the play is that of the agreement
between Antonio and Shylock. Shylock agrees to lend money to Antonio
and not to charge interest, on one condition; if Antonio fails to pay
back all of the money on time, then Shylock is allowed to literally
take ‘a pound of flesh’ from Antonio’s body. Antonio does fail to do
this and the case is brought to trial. When it seems as thought
Shylock is going to win the case, there is a sudden twist and Antonio
is let off with his life, and Shylock loses everything. Antonio in the
lay is seen as everything the perfect Christian should be; he doesn’t
argue his case and is resigned to his fate. Shylock, however, is very
stubborn, and is determined to win the trial. It is here where it is
recognised that Shylock might not be as stereotypical as first
thought. Bassanio offers him three times the original amount of money
that was first offered to him, but unlike the stereotype of a Jew
during these times, Shylock refuses.

The main themes of the play are racism, prejudice and love.

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There was
much prejudice against religions other than Christianity in Italy, due
to it being a mainly Christian country. This theme is continued
throughout the play, with a lot of name calling by Christians towards
Shylock and other Jews in general. This is especially kept up in the
trial scenes, where Shylock is referred to as a ‘dog’. The play
although set in Italy, is for an English audience.

Love is seen throughout the play in many forms, one mainly being
between Antonio and his friend Bassanio. This type of love is in the
form of a true friendship and is selfless. Bassanio owes Antonio a
great deal of money, but Antonio refuses to take any money from
Bassanio, such is the nature of their relationship. There are many
other examples of love throughout the play, mainly coming from the
form of marital relationships, as well as Shylock’s love for his
daughter Jessica, although this could be argued about. Shylock is
quite willing to give his daughter up to the person who opens the
right casket. He also appears in one scene when Jessica runs away to
be more interested in the fact that his money has gone “Ducats, oh my
ducats!”. This is instead of the more important factor of his daughter
disappearing. It is a way, which could make the Christians
misunderstand him, as he seems more bothered about his missing ducats
than his missing daughter.

The Merchant OF Venice was written around 1596 in the immediate
aftermath of the persecution of many Spanish Jews. The result of this
persecution was many of them fleeing to England and becoming refugees.
The play is about religious discrimination as well as revenge for past
wrongs. Shakespeare himself would not have had much contact with
Spanish Jews; in fact he might not have had any. “Spain during the
15th and 16th centuries…[is] Inquisition is considered one of Jewish
history's darkest chapters -- and one of Christian history's most
shameful.”[1] Venice at the time would have been a good choice for the
setting of the play as it was a very wealthy and cosmopolitan city.
There was quite a diverse set of religions with Christianity being one
of the main. Jews of the time were not really favoured upon, and were
seen by many as greedy and selfish. Only over the past 100 years has
their reputations changed for the better. Shylock was viewed in the
plays as a true villain. And over the years has seen him become more
of a great comical, yet tragic role. The play was first printed in
1600 and was written shortly after Christopher Marlow’s popular ‘Jew
of Malta’ in 1589.

Shylock’s role in the play is to portray all the characteristic of a
typical Jewish businessman and also more. Shakespeare seems to try and
help the audience to understand that Shylock is also a human being and
isn’t just what everyone expects him to be. He has a stubborn
personality, and isn’t completely obsessed with money. His is a
complete contrast with the way in which Jews are stereotyped as being
money grabbers and making money their main priority, which was the
norm for Elizabethan times. Shylock’s character could also appear to
be comical, as his character would have been over dramatised so that
it was obvious to an audience who he is meant to be. Even today the
Jewish religion isn’t the most favoured by people, and there is still
some prejudice towards them. Since the Holocaust however, Jews have
managed to gain a more sympathetic reputation, with the persecution
they suffered at the time being recognised, and how much pain and
suffering they actually go through just for something that they
believe in. This could be why it is found today that many people have
a completely different view towards the Jewish than they would have
done 600 years ago, as with the portrayal of Shylock of Shakespeare’s
readers throughout the centuries also.

Shylock could be seen as stereotypical in the way in which he refuses
to back down and take pity on Antonio. As far as he is concerned, a
deal is a deal and he wants what he believes to be justice. “The pound
of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will
have it.” Shylock is not called by his name during the trial, but
instead by the name ‘Jew’. This is making a generalisation and does
not account for the fact that he is in fact an individual person. He
does not retaliate to the name calling however, because for him it is
just a part of his way of life and something, which he must accept. It
also does him no favours to not take in to account that Antonio
himself is a person with feelings and is facing a death sentence. To
not take anyone else’s feelings in to account and to appear selfish
could be seen as a typical trait of a Jewish person.

Shylock’s character was, when first performed, meant to portray all
the stereotypical traits of a typical Jewish businessman. Throughout
the years this viewpoint has changed quite a bit. Shylock was supposed
to be seen as quite a comical character, and this remained through up
until the late 1700s. From then up until 1814 Shylock was portrayed as
a true villain, as were the interpretations from Shakespeare analysts
of the time. From 1814 onwards he was a person to be pitied, as were
Jews generally throughout Europe for the next sixty plus years. He was
finally portrayed as a tragic character in 1879, and this has remained
throughout, especially since the Second World War, during in the
Holocaust. Shakespeare’s interpretation of the character has been
discussed for many years, and many people do believe that there is
much more to Shylock than what is seen at a glance. A big example of
this comes from the trial scenes when Shylock is insistent on his
revenge rather than the money offered to him.

Shakespeare intends to bring Shylock across as more than just a
villain and your typical Jewish businessman. He uses very emotive
language when it comes to some of Shylock’s speeches, “He hath
disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my
friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew.”[2]
He is however, very stubborn, and this in turn does not help to bring
his character across as more than just your typical Jew who is out for
all he can get. Shylock has had to put up with much hatred during his
life with all the prejudice towards Jews, so in some ways it could be
seen that he is only trying to get the justice he deserves from all
the years of suffering he has been through. It is just unfortunate for
Antonio that he is a victim of Shylock’s stubborn nature.

“What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?”[3] Here you can
see that Shylock has a point. He is saying that none of the Christians
would put up with everything he has had to in his life, and that he
feels he is just getting what is owed to him. He is sticking by the
bond and the law and does not believe that Antonio should be allowed
to get off with his punishment. By waiting to go through with the
punishment, and not taking the money that is offered to him, Shylock
is showing that he is not obsessed with money in the way in which you
would expect a typical Jewish businessman to be, he is in fact more a
man of principal.

Shylock is not just about money. He believes firmly that people should
stick by the law and not break bonds. He proves this by refusing to
accept money triple the amount that Antonio owed him in order to buy
him off. Only when he realises that he isn’t going to win the case
does he start to consider the money, but in fairness he does believe
he should get something out of the situation. In the end though he is
robbed of everything he owns, and must convert to Christianity. This
also shows that Christians weren’t as warm and forgiving as first
portrayed. They could even be considered as bad as the Jews because
they have taken everything away from Shylock instead of just forgiving
and forgetting. Shakespeare manages to successfully bring across all
the good and bad points of the characters, and this is why I believe
that he is successful in making Shylock appear to be more than just a
typical Jew from back in Elizabethan times.

To say that Shylock is portrayed as a typical Jewish businessman would
be to underestimate Shakespeare’s ability to create fully developed
characters. It may be true that the skeleton of the character is based
on a stereotype that an Elizabethan audience would have readily
recognised. However, the clashes of humanity, which Shakespeare brings
to the character, enable the stereotypical to be transcended.
Ultimately, I believe Shylock is no more a typical Jewish businessman
than Lear is a typical English King. Perhaps it is the transcendence
of the stereotype which makes the characters humanity all the more
poignant.


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[1] “The 'Jewish Question' in 15th and 16th Century Spain” website:
http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v16/v16n1p-2_Chalmers.html all info from
website.

[2] “The Merchant Of Venice” William Shakespeare Act 3 Scene1

[3] “The Merchant Of Venice” William Shakespeare Act4 Scene1


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