Shylock as Helpless Victim in The Merchant of Venice

Shylock as Helpless Victim in The Merchant of Venice

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Shylock as Helpless Victim in The Merchant of Venice

      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.

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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, 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,

            Say this:

            "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.


Works Cited


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.
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