Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice


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Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, a Jewish
money-lender is portrayed as villainous throughout the play. At the
beginning of the play, he agrees to lend Antonio a sum of 3000
ducats. This loan had to be paid back within three months time
otherwise Shylock would get what he wanted, a pound of Antonio’s
flesh, as a part of a clause of the contract. Shylock’s continuous
insistence for a pound of Antonio’s flesh shows him as a villain, but
is Shylock really a villain, and not a victim?

Antonio wanted this money for his friend Bassanio, who needed it so he
could court a rich heiress called Portia. Antonio had to loan this
money from Shylock as his own money was being invested in merchant
ships which were out at sea at the time. These ships were reported to
be lost at sea, so it looked as if Antonio would not be able to repay
the 3000 ducats to Shylock. Before they found out about the ships,
containing all of Antonio’s wealth, that went missing, Shylock made
Antonio agree to an inhumane bond, which gives Shylock the right to a
pound of Antonio’s flesh: ‘let the forfeit be nominated for an equal
pound of your [Antonio] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what
part of your body pleaseth me.

Shylock can be revealed as a villain because mean attitude towards
business and his dislike of Christians, but it is only because of
people like Antonio who make Shylock feel this way. In Act I: Scene
III, we see how Shylock feels towards Antonio when he says, aside, “I
hate him for he is a Christian.” Antonio also lends out money, but
without interest rates. Since Shylock has high interest rates, most
people who would want to borrow money from someone who would not
charge interest, so Shylock would lose business and Antonio would
‘bring down the rate of usance here in Venice’.

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Shylock clearly shows
his hatred towards Antonio, when ‘Thou [Antonio] call’dst me a dog
before thou had cause, but since I am a dog beware of my fangs.’ This
suggests that Shylock was a victim because of his religion and his
beliefs. Such names as these and ‘misbeliever’ evoke feelings in
Shylock which can lead him to take part in villainous doings.

Shylock wanted revenge on Antonio who because of the way he was
treated. A sense of victimisation is conveyed when Antonio admits ‘I
am as like to call thee [dog] again, to spit on thee again.’ Shylock
tells the audience how he intends to get revenge on Antonio, ‘I’ll
plague him, I’ll torture him.’ The audience also learns a little
about Shylock’s villainous side when his daughter Jessica tells of
what she had heard: ‘I have heard him swear… that he would rather have
Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum.’ Shylock
however only feels this way because the way he, and his race, had been
treated for years by Christians like Antonio. This loan is giving
Shylock a chance to take revenge on him, so these reactions by Shylock
convey him as a villain because of his victimisation.

Shylock had a lot of money; he can be shown as a victim as his
daughter Jessica, who disliked the way she was treated by him, had run
off with a lot of his money, and also with a Christian who he has
spent a long time protecting his daughter from. Shylock was a victim
of his daughter’s harsh actions, as he was left on his own and without
his money. The audience would see Shylock as someone who is a caring
person when he finds out about his ring being stolen: ‘It was my
turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have
given it a wilderness of monkeys.’ This suggests that Shylock cares
about other concerns rather than just business and money.

The audience later feels even more sympathetic towards Shylock when he
proclaims a strong message in his speech to Christians about himself
and his race. He is questioned about his insistence on taking revenge
by taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh. In his speech, Shylock talks
about how there are no differences between himself, and also other
Jews, and Christians. He is teaching them about how revenge is a
normal way of life, how everyone would take it if wronged.

‘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? If
you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If
you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not take
revenge?’

From this small speech, we see how he has had to put up with cruel
treatment because of his race and also Shylock’s point of view on this
whole issue in a clearer way. We see him as a villain only because of
his victimisations. Shylock however is immediately forgotten to be
more of a victim than a villain when he admits: ‘I would my daughter
were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her. Would she were hearsed
at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin.’ This conveys him as a
cruel, pitiless villain since he would rather have his money than his
own daughter. He has always treated his daughter unequally, so he
becomes a victim of her stealing his money because of his villainous
behaviour.


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