Defining Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Defining Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

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Defining Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

During the play, Shakespeare illustrates Shylock's situation in such a
way that the audience understands his villainous action towards
Antonio is a result of victimisation. He is a victim of anti Semitism,
including verbal abuse and even his own daughter insults him by
robbing him and running away with a Christian and in the end he is a
victim of not showing mercy and so suffers from that mistake.

To find what makes up a classic Shakespearean villain one could look
to Iago in "Othello". In this play he is seen as the embodiment of
evil, that is to say he has no real motivation for his wicked actions
and no one could give him any sympathy. On the other hand, Shylock
does have a motive for his villainy therefore he is not a villain.
Instead Shylock has been directed towards his position because he has
been victimised.

Shylock has been a victim of racial abuse, "You call me misbeliever,
cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gabardine", "(Solanio
referring to Shylock) Let me say 'amen' betimes for here he comes in
likeness of a Jew", Solanio is anti Semitic, claiming Shylock is the
devil. Because he is a Jew his situation in Venice is second-class.
This is first seen in Bassanio's hostility towards him. At the
beginning of the scene Bassanio's speech is short and prosaic
indicating the lack of friendship between them, "Your answer to that",
this statement shows his agitation with Shylock and, "Be assured you
may", shows that Bassanio has taken shylock's previous comment as
negative which Shylock didn't intend. Bassanio insults him with snide
remarks, "If it please you to dine with us"; this is an insult because
Shylock, for religious reasons can't eat with them anyway, so the very
suggestion is disrespectful. Because Antonio does not deny his
actions, "I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again,
to spurn thee too", this makes Shylock seem even more a victim of
their racial discrimination.

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Antonio also impolitely refers to shylock
as 'thee' and 'thou' rather then 'you', again proving his racism
towards him. Lorenzo did not stop Jessica stealing from Shylock
therefore he must think that stealing from him is nothing. This is yet
another example of the racial treatment shown towards Shylock.

Shylock is mocked and hated for his money lending "(to Antonio) many a
time in the Rialto you have berated me about my moneys and usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, for sufferance is the
badge of all our tribe." Salerio and Solanio constantly mock him at
every opportunity.They seek to torment him when he is most vulnerable;
for example when Jessica has eloped they taunt him about his losses
and mock him, "You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my
daughter's flight.", Solerio inappropriately replies "That's certain.
I, for my part, knew the tailor / that made the wings she flew
withal." The audiance is made to feel sympathy towards him in his
speech describing his justification for equality, "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?"

Shylock is a victim of theft by his own daughter, Jessica and on top
of that she runs away with a Christian, insulting and betraying him
even further. Her only excuse for running away is that their house is
boring, "Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, didst rob it of
some tediousness", and so we empathise with Shylock as this is a very
meagre excuse. Shylock earns pity from the audience, "My own flesh and
blood to rebel", meaning that with her gone it is as if a part of him
has been taken too. Jessica is disrespectful, rebellious and over the
top; so much that we understand Shylock's rage, "I would my daughter
were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear". Even though this is a
very harsh statement we still sympathise with Shylock because he had
no inkling before hand of any complaints, as Jessica was always
conformist and obedient and to steal from her father including
jewellery of sentimental value and squander it on a monkey shows a lot
of disrespect. Should shylock have been less strict? He has no wife
and is in an outsider in a foreign country therefore he needs to be
overprotective in this situation. If it is a mistake, then it is a
mistake one should understand.

Although at the end of the play he has an arguably unhealthy thirst
for revenge, we can empathise with what he is feeling because it is a
natural human flaw to want to avenge when you have been wronged; the
Christians themselves seek revenge too if they have been wronged, "If
a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.", showing that
the Christians are villains also. Shylock goes wrong when he forgets
the value of mercy towards Antonio and however much you sympathise
with him, he shouldn't have wanted the bond. Here Shakespeare shows
how much victimisation can lead to inhumane actions making him a

Towards the end of the play, Shylock seems to be the villain because
he seeks to murder Antonio; but he is not a villain because the
audience know what has leaded him to his wrong actions. Because he has
been driven to the edge of insanity, from the torment and prejudice
pushed on him throughout his life by his own Venetian community this
justifies his want for revenge. It has led him to become sadistic and
blood thirsty and he forgets mercy only because he was treated in the
same way. In the end Shylock's punishment is overly harsh with Antonio
forcing him to convert to Christianity. Shylock's life is spared but
he may be better off dead because he has nothing to live on, all his
wealth has been distributed among his enemies. This makes the audiance
sympathise with him because of the unfair and harsh punishment he
receives. He is a victim of the Christians' intolerance of other races
and ideas.
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