Merchant of Venice Essay: Shylock - Antagonist or Victim?

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The Merchant of Venice: Shylock - Antagonist or Victim? In The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, there appears Shylock - a Jew. As the play unfolds Shylock is seen to be the villain and is portrayed as being cold, unbending, and evil. Shylock can easily be assumed to be the antagonist in this play or, after careful research and study, he can also be viewed as persecuted individual who resorts to revenge as a last resort after he has been pushed too far. To fully understand the character of Shylock we must first look at Elizabeathen attitudes towards Jews. In the sixteenth century Jews were rarely if ever seen in England. In the Middle Ages Jews had fled to England to escape persecution in France under the Normans. They were granted charter in England by Henry I in return for a percentage of their profits from trade and moneylending. It is here that the stereotype of Jews lending money was started. Because of the tariffs placed on them by the crown Jews took to charging high interest rates to secure profits for themselves. Here we see echos of Shylock with his usury. Finally the Jews were ordered out of England in 1254 by Edward I. They did not return to England until the later half of the seventeenth century. (Lippman 3-4) Jews were also viewed as devils by Elizabeathan audiences. Old stories portrayed them as "blood-thirsty murders" that poisoned wells and killed Christian children for their bizarre Passover ritual! als. (Stirling 2:1) These were the stereotypes which Shakespeare's audience held in regard to Jews. Shakespeare himself had never seen a Jew but he goes to great lengths to humanize Shylock even while perpetuating the stereotype. In Act 1:3, before Shyl... ... middle of paper ... ...d, 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? (III,i,54-59) At this point in the play it seems that Shylock is no different from any other man except for the fact that his religion has made him in outcast from society. Our understanding of this fact does not lessen the horror we feel at his cruelty towards Antonio, but we are able to remember that the passion for revenge is a common human failing and not the unique characteristics of a ferocious and inhuman monster as the Elizabeathans believed. (Lippman 3) Works Cited: Lippman, Laura. Merchant of Venice Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides, 1999. Stirling, Grant. "Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: The Question of Shylock." February 1997. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7221.

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