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It is believed that that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice,
between 1596 and 1589. At the time Englandwas a Christian country, and
the Jews were a misunderstood, prejudiced and marginalised people.
They were often forbidden to own land or engage in trade in England so
the only occupation open to them was money lending which they
exploited to the full, Christians were forbidden to practice usury and
the Jews were constantly portrayed as greedy misers and money-lenders.
So before the plot even starts, Shylock is condemned by the audience
for being a Jew and a vicious moneylender.
Shakespeare took a big risk in this play; if he portrayed Jews well,
so that the play offended the queen or if the audience disliked it and
took offence, he could have lost his life! Luckily for Shakespeare, he
was able to time invoke the audience's hatred for the "most
impenetrable cur", but at the same capture sympathy and understanding
from the audience towards Shylock. A measure of Shakespeare's
achievement is that the play allowed a range of different
interpretations of Shylock; people left the theatres with mixed
emotions about Shylock. He is one of the most complex characters in
English literature and scholars today still debate whether Shylock is
more a villain or a victim. In the course of this essay I will explore
the idea of Shylock being a man more sinned against than Sinning, a
villain or a victim.
Shylock's first line in the play is "Three thousand ducats." This can
be interpreted in two ways; as a man making a living at one of the few
occupations open to him, or a greedy, cold, materialistic man. I am of
the opinion that Shylock better fits the cold greedy character, as he
makes such a big deal about locking up the house (Act 2, Scene 5),
thus making the point of protecting his possessions. This shows him as
both a victim and a villain, scared of the outside world and
mistreated so much that he feels he has to emphasis at length the
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Shylock is soon to be left alone, with no other family, his only
daughter Jessica elopes with the Christian, Lorenzo, (a friend of
Bassanio's.) Shylock gains pity from the audience when we learn of
Jessica apart of his "own flesh and blood" has gone, meaning that with
her gone it is as if a part of him has been taken too, however he soon
emerges as a villain when he screams in rage showing his emotions and
"My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my
This shows his hatred for Christians, that his property has more value
to him than his daughter.
Soon after Shylock pleas for equality in Act3, Scene 1, we can't help
but see his point of view and pity him.
"â€¦what's his reason? [Antonio's reason for hating Shylock] 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
Shylock is trying to say that we are all the same as one another, but
just have different religions. It surfaces that Antonio has gone
bankrupt, as all his wealth was invested in his ships which have been
sunk out at sea. Shylock's bond has now been activated and he demands
his rightful pound of flesh under Venetian law. Antonio is arrested
and brought before a court for Shylock to have his bond.
Right from the outset, the court is very one sided in favour of
Antonio. The Duke calls for Shylock saying, "Go on, and call the Jew
into the court" This shows the Duke as being biased against Jews and
Shylock, before they even start. He is obviously influencing the
court, with his own prejudiced view; and as a result Shylock is having
an unfair trail. He is being judged in a Christian court, not a court
of his peers. This earns Shylock some sympathy but when he enters the
court he quickly looses it through his words and actions.
He takes out his blade and starts sharpening it on his shoes, quelling
any doubt that he will show mercy. He is ready to cut into Antonio's
flesh when Portia (Bassanio's new wife in the guise of a lawyer) stops
"The bond doth give thee here no jot of blood"
Shylock's insistence that the bond is carried out to the letter, has
foiled him, his words are expressly a pound of flesh. Portia reveals
the flaw in the bond; Shylock is allowed his pound of flesh but not a
drop of blood, which would surely come if he enters his skin.
"If thou doest shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
are, by the laws of Venice, confiscated unto the state of Venice".
The bond that Shylock had created has ruined his plan for revenge. The
one thing that Shylock cares for more than anything will now be taken
from him if he takes his revenge. The tables have turned, the Venetian
law says that a penalty must be paid, because this "alien" has
attempted to murder a Venetian citizen. (Shylock is classed as an
alien in his home!) His possessions are confiscated because of the
attempted murder of Antonio, and the merchant now makes two conditions
for the Jew's life: firstly he must become Christian, and, secondly,
he must make a will leaving all of his possessions to Jessica and
Lorenzo. Not only has Shylock been converted to a Christian and
humiliated in court, he has not been returned his bond nor had
justice. The circumstances invoke a profound sympathy for the Jew, in
stark contrast to the hatred we had been feeling only moments before.
So without his revenge, wealth, or daughter, Shylock (now a Christian)
is alienated from his fellow Jews. Ironically he is left alone with
nothing but what ruined him - his new found Christianity.
Shylock can be seen as both a comic character, because of his
quick-wittedness replies throughout the play, and tragic because of
the loss of his daughter, friend and possessions. I think he has been
driven to the very edge of insanity, from the torment and prejudice
forced upon him throughout his life by his own Venetian community.
That has led him to such misfortune and bitterness and I am left
feeling that Shylock is both villain but more so victim.