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Shylock is indeed a complex character and has the dimension of pain-he
has suffered, still suffers and is one of a people who have suffered
over centuries. However, to what extent should Shylock suffer and does
he deserve our sympathy or hostility. Although anti-Semitism is
totally unacceptable today, it was quite normal in Shakespeare's time.
However, as he has done with other villains, Shakespeare actually
plays around with his audience's preconceptions and makes Shylock an
interesting, complex and sometimes likable character.
Being a Jew in Christian dominated Venice, Shylock is persecuted by
society. He is the victim of popular Christian prejudice, which scorns
his religion and restricts his means of employment. He is left with no
choice but to be a moneylender and earn his money from collecting
interest. To the Christians, collecting interest was against their
teaching. This is one of the reasons for the Christians hatred.
In Act III scene I Salanio and Salarino confront Shylock, mocking him
about his daughter's deception and insulting him. Shylock explains why
he will take Antonio's flesh, making his famous speech, 'I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions?' This is where Shakespeare evokes our sympathy,
by making us realise how Shylock has suffered because of the
prejudices of the Christians around him. He explains his motives for
revenge in a rational way, showing how his actions are no different
from the Christians'. Look carefully at the language he uses, as well
as the insulting and mocking language used by the other two. At the
end of the scene, Shylock mourns the loss of his daughter, although
our feelings towards him are a bit mixed, for he seems to care more
about the money. He does give evidence, however, of his love for his
wife, which again, creates sympathy. Shylock is merely responding in
the same way that he has had people respond to him all his life.
However, it would be unjust to brand the Christians as spiteful
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sympathy. Shylock is also sinned against his own flesh and blood. Once
again, however, it would be a gross distortion to label Jessica as an
unfilial, daughter and regard Shylock as the innocent, injured party.
It was stated that Shylock was unfair to Jessica and did not treat her
very well. Later, after that incident, we see a more human side to
Shylock's character when he hears that Jessica has sold his ring given
to him by his wife.
However, Shylock loses our sympathy when we see his avaricious nature.
In addition, we cannot excuse Shylock's devious vengeful nature as
demonstrated in the way which he is cunningly entraps Antonio to 'feed
his revenge'. In the court scene, Portia, with whom the audience feels
great sympathy, is arguing against Shylock. His argument seems to have
less force here and we feel that he is being unfairly cruel and
stubborn, especially after Antonio has lost his fortune. His lack of
humanity is fully highlighted here, by not showing mercy to Antonio by
accepting the money. This can still be argued that Shylock
stubbornness was to show that he would hold firm to the law and he was
not a greedy man. However, some sympathy for Shylock may be created as
a result of Antonio's spiteful speech, 'I pray you, think you question
with the Jew: You may as well go stand upon the beach /And bid the
main flood bate his usual height;'
The fact that he does not win the case - and even loses a great deal
of money - may be just rewards, according to some people. Others feel
sorry for him, because it seems as if everyone, including the just
Portia, is against him. Moreover, the punishment meted out to him is
rather harsh on several counts.
Shylock leaves the play feeling ill and old, having lost everything
that makes his life worth living, including his self-esteem, a broken
man, we truly feel sorry for him, perhaps because the Christian relish
their triumph so much and because we feel in our heart of hearts that
Jessica's romance is built on ducats rather than devotion.
Ultimately, Shylock loses all our sympathy because his method of
revenge is that of cold and calculating murder. He is a villain, but
we do have sympathy in his sufferings for much of the play. Shylock is
difficult to judge because he is not merely a caricature, even though
Shakespeare perhaps meant him to be originally, he is a real person
and he is too complex to make facile judgments about.