Shylock, the Hated Jew of The Merchant of Venice
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Many of William Shakespeare's plays have sparked controversy. Probably
the one that has sparked the most controversy is The Merchant of Venice, which
many intellectuals have dubbed an anti-Semitic play. The character that this
discussion centers around is Shylock, the rich moneylender Jew. The problem
with most of these anti-Semitic arguments is that they lack the perspective of
the sixteenth century audience. Throughout Shakespeare's The Merchant of
Venice (M of V), the audience's perception of Shylock moves between utter hatred
and varying amounts of pity. In contrast to today's audience, the original
sixteenth century audience saw Shylock's religion as his biggest shortcoming.
Our first glimpse of Shylock's character comes in Act I, scene 3, where
Shylock reveals to the audience why he hates Antonio. The first reason he gives
of why he hates Antonio is because he is a Christian. (I. iii. 43) This to the
sixteenth century audience would be unreasonable, and this would evoke a sort of
villainy towards Shylock. But a few moments later, the audience witnesses
Shylock's speech about Antonio's abuses towards Shylock. (I. iii. 107-130)
This speech does well in invoking the audience's pity, however little it might
be in the sixteenth century. But again at the end, Shylock offers that Antonio
give up a pound of flesh as penalty of forfeiture of the bond, which Antonio
sees as a joke, but which Shylock fully intends to collect. (I. iii. 144-78)
This action negates any pity which Shylock would have one from the audience just
a few moments before. Shakespeare, in this scene, uses Shylock's dialogue and
soliloquies to push loyalties of the audience back and forth in a result of a
negative view of Shylock.
In Act II, scene 8, Salarino and Salanio describe to the audience
Shylock's reaction when he finds out that his daughter, Jessica, has run away to
marry a Christian. Says Salanio:
"I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter!
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! find the girl;
She hat the stones upon her, and the ducats.'" (II. viii. 12-22)
One can't help wondering if the message is only as trustworthy as the messenger,
for as we know, Salarino and Salanio have expressed their hatred towards Shylock.
However, the sixteenth century audience wouldn't have any reason not to believe
these two men, because they have given no reason not to be to their perspective.
In this re-count of events we notice that Shylock cries "O my ducats! O my
daughter!" many times, which suggests that Shylock sees Jessica as just another
one of her material goods, as the ducats. The audience would not respect this
at all, after all, one's daughter should be much more important than any
material wealth. This is yet another instance which the audience views Shylock
as a shallow miser who only thinks of himself.
Act III, scene 1 is probably the biggest turning point in the play,
especially for the audience. After being badgered by Salarino and Salanio,
Shylock manipulates the audience's sympathies by offering a monologue on revenge.
The scene is as follows:
Salarino. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit,
thou wilt not take his flesh:
what's that good for?
Shylock. To bait fish withal: if it will
feed nothing else, it will feed
my revenge. 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 is his reason? I am
a Jew. 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 wring us, shall we not revenge? If
we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a
Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should
his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why, revenge. The villainy you teach
me, I will execute, and it shall go hard
but I will better the instruction.
This monologue succeeds in silencing Shylock's critics both on and off stage.
Shylock has successfully made the audience stop and think, and even side with
him. He makes the audience say, "You know what, he's right." Any prejudice the
audience might have had has been put aside by this speech. Shylock, of course,
won't keep the audiences pity for long, though. When Tubal enters Shylock says
to him, "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!
would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!" (III.i. 91-4)
This is the same reason the audience lost pity for Shylock before, because he is
so shallow that he cares more about his ducats than he does his own daughter.
He would like to see his daughter dead with the ducats and jewels in her coffin.
What kind of caring father is that? The audience certainly would not take to
this very kindly; and of course, Shylock has lost our pity once again.
Shylock makes himself even more despised by the audience in Act III,
scene 3, where he makes it clear to Antonio and to the audience that the penalty
of a pound of Antonio's flesh will be collected. He continually says that he
will have his bond and that he has no reason to show mercy. (III.iii. 5-17)
More and more the audience begins to hate what Shylock does. He acts purely out
of law and shows no mercy towards Antonio.
Act IV, scene 1 is where the true shallowness and villainy of Shylock
becomes apparent. The others continually beg Shylock to show mercy, and he
refuses, because it is not so outlined in the bond. He continually looks to the
bond to dictate his behavior that it is ironic that it is the bond that
eventually destroys him. He goes from threatening somebody's life because of
the bond, to being posed with death because of the same bond. And when he is in
the same position that Antonio was in, he is shown mercy when he himself would
show none. It would seem to the original audience that the most merciful act
was to make Shylock convert to Christianity, therefore saving his soul from
eternal damnation. But to Shylock, it is probably the worst punishment
conceivable because, after all, he would become what he hated most, a Christian.
Perhaps this is the comedy of this tragedy: the villain becomes what he loathes
The sixteenth century audience would have definitely hated the character
of Shylock. It probably wouldn't have been uncommon to hear boos and hisses
every time he came on stage in an original production. Probably the only time
when there wouldn't have been jeers from the audience would have been in Act III,
scene 1; the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech. The sympathies of the audience were
definitely in full swing in this play, going back and forth between a little bit
of pity to a lot of hatred. Probably the most underlying quality of Shylock
that the audience hated most was his religion. Shylock was the embodiment of
all that was bad about Jews - the people that muredered Jesus. But still,
there had to have been some pity at some level from the audience.
Barnet Sylvan. "Introduction." The Merchant of Venice Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New
Jersey : Prentice-Hall Inc., 1970. 1-10.
Brown, Russell John. "The Realization of Shylock : A Theatrical Criticism."
Major Literary Characters: Shylock Ed. Harold Bloom. New York : St.
Martins Press, 1961. 187-209.
Granville-Barker, Harley. "The Merchant of Venice. " Shakespeare Ed.
Leonard F. Dean. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1947. 37-71.
Palmer, John. "Shylock. " Major Literary Characters: Shylock Ed. Harold
Bloom. London : Macmillan, 1946. 53-61, 66-91.