Shylock as Helpless Victim in The Merchant of Venice
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In 1594 the Earl of Essex, an English Nobleman who lived during the
Elizabethan period in England, was actively involved in the persecution and
trials of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez was a Jew of Portuguese descent, who was
wrongly accused of attempting to poison the Queen of England. Lopez, being
the Queen's royal physician, was in no position
to defend himself once he was accused. Essex, who provided the evidence also
presided over the trial of Lopez, leaving Lopez little chance of survival. The
innocent Jew was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Tyburn, England for all to
The story of Roderigo Lopez is similar to the story of Shylock, although,
Palmer tells us "It is not suggested that Shakespeare in portraying Shylock, had
any political or social intentions" ( 112-13). Both Jews were placed in time
where "anti-Semitism was in fashion" (Palmer 113), and both thrown into court
where they would be tried unjustly. The story of Roderigo Lopez sets the tone
for The Merchant of Venice. Lopez' incident occurred in 1594, The Merchant of
Venice was written only two years later. Anti-Semitism was prevalent during
Shakespeares' time, and therefore we must understand that it was as easy for him
to make a Jewish man the villain as it would be for us to make a Nazi the
villain. According to Sylvan Barnet "The Merchant of Venice [shows] the
broad outline of a comedy (not merely a play with jests, but a play that ends
happily). . . the villain in the comedy must be entirely villainous, or, rather,
comically villainous; he cannot for a moment gain the audience's sympathy" (1).
Shylock has often been portrayed as the villain in The Merchant of Venice. From
being more concerned with his ducats rather than his daughter, to demanding his
pound of flesh, Shylock fits perfectly into the mold of the villain. However,
with reference to Barnet's comment "he cannot for a moment gain the audience's
sympathy" (1), Shylock oversteps the boundaries of his villainous character.
The audience cannot and would not have rooted for Shylock during Shakespeare's
lifetime, yet, now we do. Shylock is merely a victim of anti-Semitism.
Although victorious in his bond, Shylock was raped of his lands, his faith and
his pride. Shylock not the necessarily the villain, rather the victim.
Shakespeare takes his time before introducing Shylock, however, when he
does, he shows us a decent businessman.
May you stead me? Will you pleasure me?
Shall I know your answer?
Three thousand ducats for three months--
and Antonio bound.
Your answer to that.
Antonio is a good man.
Have you heard any imputation to the
Ho no, no, no, no...my meaning in saying
he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient. Yet his means are in supposition : he hath
an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies;
I understand moreover upon the Rialto he hath a third
at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he
hath squandered abroad. But ships are but boards,
sailors but men--there be land-rats and water-rats,
land-thieves and water-thieves--I mean pirates-and
then there is peril of waters, winds, and rocks. The
man is, notwithstanding, sufficient. Three thousand
ducats--I think I may take his bond (I. iii. 7-26.).
Through this entire exchange Shylock says that Antonio is financially fit.
Shylock knows that Antonio is good for the three thousand ducats. Then, as any
good businessman would do, he considers how Antonio, a merchant, has all of his
ships at sea. He talks of the dangers of sea and how Antonio may not get all of
his ships back, if so, he will not have the money. It is here that we begin to
get a glimpse of Shylocks' evilness. "The man is, not withstanding, sufficient.
Three thousand ducats--I think I may take his bond" (I. i. 25-26.). Shylock
realizes his opportunity, he can profit from this venture. Shakespeare begins
to create his villain, we have no choice but to hate this man. Shakespeare
continues to build his villain by giving Shylock an aside in which he reveals
his hatred for Antonio, because he is a Christian and he lends money without
charging interest, thus bringing the interests rates down. However, it is in
this same scene that we hear Shylocks defense.
Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
in the rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish garbedine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to, then. You come to me and you say,
"Shylock, we would have moneys"--you say so,
You that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold! Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say,
"Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?" Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness,
"Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog, and for these courtesies
I'll lend you lend you thus much moneys" (I. iii. 104-127)?
Why would Shakespeare give his villain such an elaborate speech, and why such a
good defense? It is noteworthy that Shylock is the only Shakespearean villain,
with a defense. Both, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Duke Frederick in
As You Like It, for example, play meaningless roles as villains. Duke Frederick
has little to say during the play except to banish Rosalind. Don John has no
motive whatsoever for attempting to ruin his friends' wedding. Yet, at the end
of both plays there is no real sympathy for them because we never really know
them. Shakespeare doesn't bring Frederick or Don John to life, however, Shylock
does come to life, in fact he is full of life. "He steps into the play, actual
and individual from his first word on" (Granville-Barker 55). We know Shylock,
we understand him, and most of all we sympathize for him. "Shakespeare has
humanized him [Shylock] to such good purpose that this comic Jew has become, for
many brilliant and sensitive critics, a moving, almost a tragic figure" (Palmer
117). However these were not Shakespeare's intentions. "When Shakespeare sat
down to write The Merchant Of Venice in 1594, anti-Semitism was in fashion"
(Palmer 113). Knowing this it becomes clear why Shakespeare was able to use a
Jew as the villain. However what is not clear is why he gave Shylock a backbone,
that is to say a defense. It is here that the story of Roderigo Lopez meets the
story of Shylock. It is written that there might have been some kind of
connection between Shakespeare and Lopez. Begin that Shakespeare was well liked
and fairly wealthy, he used many of the same services as the Royal Family, quite
possibly Lopez' medical services. It is also documented that Shakespeare
witnessed the trial and hanging at Tyburn. It is my belief that Shakespeare is
showing Lopez through Shylock. According to L. J. Friia, "it is quite possible
that he is representing friends of his, that were Jews" (interview). If this is
true and if Shakespeare and Lopez were acquainted, then it is very well possible
that Shakespeare is sympathizing for Lopez through Shylock.
Although Shakespeare alternates between Venice and Belmont, his main
concern is for developing the villain. When we return to Venice we are
introduced to Shylock's servant, Launcelot Gobbo. Launcelot rambles on about
the fight between his conscience and the fiend. This scene serves one purpose,
to show Launcelot changing masters, from Shylock to Bassanio, and it gives
Shakespeare the opportunity to show the hatred that the community feels for
Shylock. Launcelot labels Shylock as "the very devil incarnation" (II. ii. 25.).
When Launcelot's father offers a present for Shylock Launcelot responds:
My master's a very Jew. Give
him a present? Give him halter! I am famished in his
service; you may tell every finger I have with my ribs
Father, I am glad you are come. Give me your present
to one master Bassanio, who indeed gives rare new liveries
(II. ii. 101-105.).
Having Launcelot talk so poorly about Shylock reinforces the audiences initial
thoughts of Shylock.
Even Shylocks' own daughter, Jessica, speaks ill of him, leaving the
audience with negative impressions. This secures our own ill feelings toward
Shylock. Shylock shows his greed by instructing Jessica to lock up all of his
money while he is away. He knows that there will be a parade, and since he will
be with Antonio, sealing the bond, he tells Jessica to "lock up my doors" (II.
vi. 30.), "stop my house's ears, I mean my casements" (II. vi. 35.).
Shakespeare has effectively labeled Shylock as the villain. However,
Shakespeare continue to feed his cast with anti-semitic remarks. He has Solanio
call Shylock "The villain Jew" (II. viii. 4.). Solanio also provides us with
an imitation of Shylock:
"My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!
Justice! The law! My ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stol'n from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stol'n by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats." (II. viii. 15-
The question here is what or who is Shylock concerned with?When analyzed we see
that Shylock mentions his missing daughter six times, whereas he mentions his
missing ducats and stones eight times. Shylock is more concerned with his money.
Again, Shakespeare is only building him up so that you dislike him, while in
actuality we begin to feel sorry for him. Shakespeare no longer needs to build
Shylocks character up, although he does with little slurs and references to the
devil. It is obvious, for whatever the reasons might be, that Shylock is the
villain. Shakespeare, as he did earlier sets Shylock for his most famous speech.
Solanio and Salerio continually badger Shylock about the bond and whether he
will take the flesh or not.
Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take
his flesh. What's that good for?
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's 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 dis-
eases, 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 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 Chris-
tian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why revenge. The villainy you
taught me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will
better the instruction (III. i. 48-69.).
Salerio and Salanio respond with nothing but silence. Shakespeare needs to
bring an irrelevant character into the play, a messenger of Antonio, to continue.
Shakespeare, ignored any anti-Semitism of the times, forgetting that his
audience expected a spineless villain of Shylock, and was the most tolerant of
men alive, when he wrote Shylocks act three speech. Any feelings of love for
the Jew are replaced with feelings of mistrust and hatred. If he was portraying
Roderigo Lopez, then he decided to copy his fate for Shylock's. Lopez was
treated unfairly in court, and was hanged. Shylock's destiny does not stray far
from Lopez'. Whatever backbone Shylock had in the first three acts, is gone for
the fourth and his name is not even mentioned in the fifth. Shakespeare takes
Shylock to court, and murders him.
Shakespeare opens the courtroom scene by having the Duke refer to
Shylock as "A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch" (IV. i. 4.), in case we had
forgotten how Venice cares for the Jew. Though Shakespeare took great pains at
making Shylock plausible, he put little effort into his defense during the court
hearing. Shylock's only defense is the law. No reference to religion, or how
he dislikes Antonio, how he has been treated by his enemies. Yet Brown
enlightens us when he tells us "yet this [Shylock's silence] is the means by
which Shakespeare has drawn almost all the audience's interest to him once more"
(197). Shylock never mentions how Antonio has called him dog, and spit upon him.
Shylock intends on keeping this matter businesslike, he dislikes Antonio
because "he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance" (I. iii.
41-42). Shylock does allude to the fact that, like the purchased slaves of
Venice, he owns the pound of flesh he has demanded, and will do with it as he
pleases. Portia waltzes into the courtroom dressed as a young doctor of Padua,
learned beyond his years. She takes the case from the hands of the Duke, teases
Shylock by awarding him his bond, and then kills him. She explains that Shylock
is to take a pound of flesh, no more, no less.
But in the cutting it if thou dost shed
one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice (IV. i. 107-110.).
Shylock, realizing he has been foiled, then asks for three times the sum.
Portia refuses his plea, saying he has denied it in the open court, and
therefore must take it.
We can easily say there is no sympathy between the audience and any of
Shakespeare's comedic villains. Then why is it so hard for any audience not to
be sympathetic towards Shylock? The reason is simple, Shylock is the victim.
It happens in two scenes, the loss of his daughter, and in the courtroom.
Shylock was treated like a second class citizen, if a citizen at all. There was
no regard for his motives, or his personal feelings. Antonio slapped the
penalty on as if he was merely sending Shylock to his room. The loss of
identity felt by Shylock does not even phase the presumed "legal eagle" in the
room, the Duke of Venice. Shylock is the victim for no other reason than he was
treated unfairly. He was duped, mocked, and destroyed by a female, who would be
ostracized as much as a Jew if she were caught in that room, "and what's his
reason? I am a jew" (III. iii. 55.).
"A life of poverty and the outward acceptance of his daughter's husband
and his enemies' religion." (Brown 197). Shylock is dead. Portia has stabbed a
knife into his back, and Antonio twists it by forcing Shylock to become a
Christian. Shylock was "murdered" in an open courtroom for all to see, yet
nobody will ever say he was killed, rather that he committed suicide.
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.