Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice


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Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

There have been many variations over the hundreds of years in how the
character Shylock has been played in productions of “The Merchant of
Venice” by William Shakespeare. Shylock is often noted as the most
important character in the play, so the way he is performed can change
how people interpret the play itself.

Shylock can be interpreted as the villain or the victim of the play.
Sometimes in productions the audiences’ sympathies can swing first
one-way then another, the actor will portray Shylock as a consistent
character however; certain scenes create sympathy for him.

Racism is a key issue in the play. Both the Christians and the Jew
(Shylock) indulge in racist acts towards each other. Shylock admits at
his first appearance that he hates Antonio because of his beliefs, “I
hate him for he is a Christian” this is not a valid reason to hate
someone and would illustrate Shylock as a villain. In some people’s
view Shakespeare has created philosophical characters, Shylock - evil,
Bassanio - loving and Antonio- self-sacrificing. Antonio was in some
ways willing to sacrifice his life so that his best friend could have
a happy one. This is an allegory with Christianity, Jesus laying down
his life, reinforcing the Christian message. However there are many
incidences where Shylock is the victim of racial banter e.g. puns of
gentile. “If you prick us do we not bleed… if you poison us do we not
die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Here Shylock is
saying that Christians and Jews are both human and deserve to be
treated the same. In the scene of Antonio’s trial, the Duke, who
should be impartial is very obviously biased towards Antonio and
doesn’t feel the need to conceal this. We do not feel pity for Shylock
here because he is causing so much pain due to his hatred of the
Christians this makes us perceive Shylock as a villain.

The way characters behave shows what they are really thinking.

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Shylock
can be quite devilish at times in act 1 scene 3 where he pretends to
joke about the pound of flesh; Antonio believes he is jesting and
falls into Shylock’s trap. This pretence enabled Shylock to
manipulate Antonio with his careful selection of words, which instead
of making him angry, as he was earlier in the scene, lulled Antonio
into a false sense of security. “Why fear not man, I will not forfeit
it.” This shows that there is no doubt in Antonio’s mind that he will
not fail to pay back the fee. Shylock uses sarcasm quite a lot, "Fair
sir you spat on me Wednesday last." Sarcasm is not an appealing
quality, which makes him seem like a villain through his use of
words. Alternatively, Shylock’s behaviour in certain scenes shows his
vulnerability and he becomes the victim. Salanio illustrates this when
he recounts Shylock’s behaviour upon discovering that Jessica has gone
with his money and jewels. He was crying in the streets shouting “My
daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my
Christian Ducats...” Surprisingly Salanio said that Shylock cried out
for his daughter first over his money, this shows his daughter is more
important to him than his wealth. The fact that Salanio and Salerio
are mocking him when they helped cause this anguish creates pity for
Shylock and portrays him as a victim.

Shylock is often thought of a loveless career minded money-lending
Jew. This is because of the stereotypical Jew who only cares about
money. In another play “the Jew of Malta” by Christopher Marlowe, made
a Jew as the central villain who share some of the same
characteristics e.g. bloodthirsty and the unkindness to Christians. At
the time the Merchant of Venice was written the Jewish people were
subjected to prejudice and regarded as an inferior race. However as
we see throughout the play Shylock feels very strongly for his
daughter and wishes to protect her at all times and when the
Christians masques came he told her to lock up all the doors; this
shows that he cares for her and he appears the victim when she runs
away. When Shylock finds out that she had sold his late-wife’s
turquoise ring for a monkey, he is deeply saddened as it was very
precious to him. On the other hand, earlier in that scene, Act 3
scene 1 Shylock declares” I would my daughter were dead at my foot,
and the jewels in her ear.” meaning he would want her dead so he can
get his jewels back. This colours our image of Shylock as a villain,
what father wishes their child dead for material possessions?

Shylock has a moral code which he stuck to even when everyone was
against him. He contracted a bond with Antonio, Antonio failed to
honour the bond and must forfeit to what was agreed. Shylock feels it
would be a great injustice if the forfeit were not carried out. “My
deeds upon my head, I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my
bond.” The scene of the trial shows his search for justice and he
wants nothing more than what was written on the bond, this scene
portrays Shylock as a victim of the law, if the tables were turned and
it was Antonio seeking the law his Christian status would deny Shylock
of any justice as The duke, the judicial power in Venice, is a fellow
Christian. The Christians are against Shylock merely because he is a
Jew this would make Shylock a victim. Equally this same argument can
be reversed and interpreted as just a way of getting back at Antonio
for those years of name-calling and abuse.

The fact that Jews could not take up a career as craftsmen, one of the
very few options remaining was to become a moneylender and have to
charge interest rates to earn a living. The Christians looked down on
this as it was against their own religion and this would cause
friction between Shylock and Antonio. Shylock cannot do much else so
his limited choices cast him as a victim.

Jessica, Shylocks daughter, wishes she was out of his life and escapes
with the race he hates the most- the Christians. Jessica is ashamed
of her father, the Christians mock and say “There is more difference
between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” meaning Shylock
and Jessica are very different; Jessica is so kind and gentle and is
the opposite to her father. This would make Shylock out to be a
villain as Jessica says how living with her father is hell and she
hates it.

From analysing the play it is not hard to determine whether Shylock is
a victim or villain. Shakespeare created Shylock as a villain;
however, in some scenes we do feel pity for him and feel that he is
hard done by. In turn making us feel he is a victim. These feelings
and opinions change but at the end of the play our sympathies are with
Antonio and we are bound to feel hate for his opponent Shylock. We
recognise his faults more than his qualities and therefore perceive
him as a villain.


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