How Does One Experience Sympathy for Shakespeare's Shylock - in The Merchant of Venice

Powerful anti-Semitic notions permeated in Shakespeare’s epoch; the execution of Dr Rodrigo Lopez – Queen Elizabeth’s illustrious physician who was an assimilated Jew – cultivated profound interest in the rather clandestine and shady Jewish people. The Jews were a mysterious race reputed to be financially notorious and degenerate and thus were constantly subjugated and constricted. Shylock embodies the epitome of a covetous and devious Jew and yet incurs our sympathy. Shakespeare has gracefully contrived the intrigue so that throughout the play one’s emotions oscillate between pity and disdain towards this compelling character.

The portrayal of Shylock as a victim languishing in a repressive and callous Christian society has the capacity to evoke great compassion; a certain aspect of Shylock is portrayed as a reputable and dignified citizen subject to merciless Christian hostility and thus one feels pity for this beleaguered character.

Even though Shylock’s twisted and depraved psyche transpires, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock as a victim is so powerful that he can sustain our pity.

Throughout the play it is possible to interpret Shylock as a clean law-abiding citizen who seeks to benefit from Venice’s commercial excellence; he desires to conduct legitimate and authentic business like any Christian. A very distinct way one feels pity for this character is how he is primarily depicted as assertive and self-assured but gradually becoming fraught and afflicted because he is the tragic victim of jealousy and anti-Jewish sentiment deeply entrenched in the Christian ethos. He receives wanton aggression and is addressed as ‘inhuman wretch’, ‘cut-throat dog’ and ‘inexecrable dog’.

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His Christian assailants apply severe provocative language to inflict distress and agony; they allude to him frequently as ‘dog’ debasing his humanity and equating him to an unsavoury and sullied beast inspiring sympathy. He is humiliated by Antonio and spat upon solely because he is a Jew. Thus one firstly experiences great pity for shylock because of his depiction as a minor individual subject to customary and relentless Christian maltreatment – a condition ascribed to him unjustly because of his religious convictions. He has perpetrated no crime and yet incurs disparagement and Antonio’s ‘Rheum’. Antonio has ‘laughed at (his) losses’, ‘thwarted (his) bargains’ and scorned (his) nation’ simply because of his ethnicity.

Thus it is this picture of injustice that engenders immense pity: an inoffensive character who is scorned and repudiated by society for his spiritual and religious convictions. It is not merely Antonio who condescends Shylock but also his entourage and the vast majority of those who profess the Christian faith. At the zenith of Shylock’s intense anguish (forsaken by Jessica) he is still scorned by Salerio thus arousing profound pity for Shylock. ‘My own flesh and blood to rebel! ‘ ‘out upon it old carrion, rebels it at these years? ‘ (It is an unsavoury sordid joke with sexual connotations intended to inflict greater distress. Therefore the audience, witnessing such excessive abuse fosters pity for shylock; this also exemplifies how language is manipulated to constitute distasteful and squalid imagery. Vulgar images are invoked in the midst of Shylock’s woes, demeaning him.

One must profess that our pity for shylock is curtailed by knowledge of Shylock’s malevolent intent and his dissolute psychology as he desires to cut a pound of flesh ‘nearest to the heart’. Our sympathy prevails as one acknowledges how shylock is what he is – a tormented individual – because of unremitting Christian abuse which exerts exquisite strain and anguish. People are lovable if they are loved; shylock is the exact opposite of this situation; it is the vulgar, unjustified and sporadic abuse that causes his mind to blacken and twist. Shylock, in Acts 4. , and 1 shylock is alluded to the devil by salerio, antonio and Portia (who has not even been acquainted with him). At the pinnacle of his anguish after the elopement of his daughter, Christian ‘boys of Venice’ deride him and salerio exercises verbal aggression that is both gratuitous and undignified which would have had profound repercussion on his mental health.

Salerio, after making the sexual mockeries, remarks how he ‘know(s) the tailor who made wings (Jessica) flew withal’ attempting cruelly to exacerbate his woes. Shylock may possess a sordid mind but he does not intend to undertake any perverse fantasies. In fact, the unyielding Christian insults themselves represent the even more dissolute mindset of the Christian community. Thus after one considers Shylock’s plight and insanity (ascribed to Christian abuse) and considers the wanton Christian enmity, pity overwhelms us. We feel indignation over how shylock is susceptible to unprovoked assaults and abuse. Shylock’s compelling and phenomenal speech in act3 scene 1 resonates with self pity and is a simple plea for humanity; manipulating our emotions through the application of powerful language. He shouts ‘hath not a Jew eyes! , ‘hath not a Jew hands! ‘: this is moving language artistically constructed by Shakespeare using simple, concise and succinct phrases that heightens pity and sustains the tension.

The way Shylock screams ‘hath not a Jew organs! ‘ shows that this speech is not embellished with sophistry or complex language but it is a simple plea for humanity expressed from the innermost depths of his heart. The way Shakespeare equates Christians to Jews and asks whether or not they are ‘cooled by the same winds’ and ‘subject to the same diseases’ adds rhetorical eloquence inducing pity. Although Shylock’s speech does take a sinister turn the audience still retains compassion acknowledging how shylock’s deplorable mental state has been induced by relentless provocation. We sympathise immensely because Shylock has never retaliated so vigorously; this explosion is an unprecedented response caused by overwhelming anger never expressed. As his plea becomes a justification for vengeful murder we get a complicated feeling: his justification seems crazy but also a little reasonable; it seems immoral but also perhaps righteous.

This demonstrates the excellence and rhetorical eloquence of his speech and how images and language contribute to our pity. There are intrinsic and striking attributes that exist in Shylock which are manifestations of his integrity and his scrupulous character. We can find distinctive components in his character that are capable of inspiring understanding and pity. In Act3 scene 1 we are informed of a ‘turquoise ring’ which belonged to Leah; Shylock overtly expresses how he would not have ‘given that ring for a wilderness of monkeys’. These words are a compelling and heartfelt gesture of the sincere love that thrived between Shylock and his late wife. They reflect the love that Shylock is capable of nurturing; the ring exemplifies his capacity to love. Thus the ring is an emblem reminiscent of Shylock’s decency, morality and humanity that has been corrupted and sadly destroyed by the Christian abuse. This is a poignant notion to reflect on and should entail sympathy.

One can also ascertain that Shylock is a principled individual advocating the correct ideals. He is cynical of the Christians; reviling their debauched ethos; this is revealed when he articulates ‘What Christian husbands! ‘. The play displays a portrait of Bassanio as a prodigal, flamboyant and frivolous youngster who has foolishly squandered his wealth. He is concerned fundamentally about aggrandizing his affluence and prestige. The primary characteristic of Portia that he considers is how she is ‘richly left’- which conveys his superficiality. This shallow and foolish man ends with the best circumstance while Shylock is left desolate and discredited.

This unjust image should surely inspire pity. Another possible way to experience pity is by recognising how Shylock’s financial and religious freedom is implacably constricted. The Jews were prohibited from possessing any real property and a large proportion accumulated wealth by practicing usury making significant contributions to the industry yet receiving excessive Christian enmity. One of his only means of acquiring reasonable wealth is through this sensible and honest exercise yet still he is severely reproached and denounced. He is inhibited by Antonio who lends money ‘gratis’ and ‘lowers the rate of usance’ needlessly obstructing Shylock’s success. In Act 4 scene 1 Shylock is rendered speechless as the Christian establishment exacts even more severe financial concessions stipulating that Antonio should ‘seize one half (of Shylock’s) goods’ and that the other half (well earned and deserved) ‘should come to the privy coffer of the state’.

This is a great social injustice and would surely stimulate deep indignation and pity amongst the audiences. The Christian characters have all colluded and conspired against Shylock -a helpless victim- forcing him into a perpetual state of despair and bankruptcy. The Christians have permanently dismantled his wealth that was assiduously accumulated – this should surely inspire sympathy. After the duke has delivered his verdict Shylock cannot even articulate his ineffable agony. Considering stagecraft as an integral part of the play we should note how the audience would see a cowering and defeated Shylock limp out of the courtroom. This moment is of symbolic resonance demonstrating Shylock, once a proud and prosperous citizen, now discredited and lost. It heightens our pity and sorrow as we reflect on the injustice and how the Christians have all maliciously abused Shylock.

To intensify his anguish after his defeat Gratiano exercises severe needless aggression with relish echoing Shylock’s own preceding words of ‘upright judge’ and ‘learned judge’; the language is crafted to enable Gratiano to derisively simulate Shylock’s speech in an offensive and unchivalrous manner which evokes pity for the helpless Shylock. One can discern the words’ scornfulness and the racism embodied in ‘o Jew’. In Venice – one of Europe’s most liberal cities in Shakespeare’s epoch- the Jews were constrained to live in the city’s ‘Ghettos’ and were obliged to don Jewish gabardines and hats to label them as Jews in order to facilitate discrimination. With such an historical context, sympathy for Shylock surely must have resonated with certain ancient and contemporary audiences. Certainly, another malicious penalty to exact is demanding that Shylock ‘presently become a Christian’; this not only embodies Christian manipulation but it is undermining an individual’s livelihood by forcing him to renounce his faith which engenders his irremediable descent into despair and oblivion.

This is a callous infliction; as one knows the Jews distinguished themselves ethnically and this command would have robbed Shylock of his identity. In the play, considering matters of stagecraft Shylock would have in fact worn certain garments to characterize himself denoting how he prides his faith. Forcing him to revoke his faith is a dismissal of his identity which relegates his livelihood. The Jewish garment that he constantly wore would remind the audience of his pride in his faith and the way he is dramatically forced to repudiate it. The garment is a stagecraft device contributing to the pity that one experiences by reminding us of how Christians have needlessly stolen his dignity and pride. The entire play is suffused by prominent yet underlying themes of alienation. One must not only consider the religious and ethnic alienation – that has already been discussed – but how Shylock is isolated and lonely. His wife, whom he affectionately and profoundly adores, is deceased.

His only remaining echo or embodiment of his wife is his daughter – whom he also loves. One can experience unyielding pity after his daughter’s elopement with a Christian because this signifies his irrevocable descent into loneliness and isolation. Our pity intensifies when we learn that Shylock drifts ‘through the streets’ not only because he is stripped of his dignity but because he is articulating profound emotional distress screaming ‘my daughter! which perturbs the audience. He has no other family; although a substantial proportion of his wealth has diminished there is no greater pain than betrayal. His woes are aggravated when his daughter’s lavishness and indulgence is disclosed. His daughter is revelling and basking in extravagance and does not seem to express any remorse or reluctance. This is insufferable for Shylock and the audience’s pity is consolidated while Shylock is remarking how ‘it tortureth me’ or how the knowledge is like ‘a dagger that sticketh in (him).

The stagecraft here is of considerable significance in the evocation of pity: in this scene, while conferring with tubal the character of Shylock would display agitated movements on stage that reflects his deep agony and his inconsolable distress. His expression would be of anguish and revulsion; he would be afflicted and plagued and this is an immense contribution that heightens our pity. This theme of alienation – which generates pity – is perennial and palpable through the play. It is not only Jessica who alienates and marginalises Shylock but also Launcelot who forsakes his master for no adequate reason except his master’s ethnicity. Admittedly servicing Bassanio’s sumptuous lifestyle would constitute a more pleasant experience but Launcelot also enacts this betrayal without reluctance. Shylock is obliged to convert to Christianity and conform with a race that has oppressed, alienated and disenfranchised him.

Unfortunately for him, in becoming a Christian he is now alienated by his own ‘tribe’ and he now becomes what he most abhors. This not only exacerbates his situation but this may give rise to damaging psychological ramifications, evoking greater pity. Admittedly Shylock is degenerate (he cannot be blamed), but his powerful and realistic depiction incurs sympathy. Having meticulously examined Shylock we can comprehend the ways we experience pity for this character; Shakespeare contrives an image of injustice: Christians exercise excessive abuse, Christian machinations and scheming against a weak victim and Christians propelling Shylock to the brink of insanity. Acknowledging the cruel historical context Shylock is also alienated, betrayed, stripped of dignity, derided and scorned even though he has executed no crime.

He possesses a callous and perverted mind – two blemishes attributed to Christian provocation. There are characteristics composed in his character that inspire understanding and empathy – the turquoise ring embodies his humanity. One must also remember an overlooked aspect: Shylock commands pity with sustained striking language. A prevalent notion that actively impedes our pity is knowledge of Shylock’s wickedness but as Shylock himself understood it was Christians who taught him this ‘villainy’; after all he merely speculated that it would be nothing more than a ‘merry bond’ and the pound of flesh was just a perverse fantasy not to be undertaken; he never actually anticipated that he would be embroiled in a circumstance that involved him, Antonio’s chest and a knife.

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How Does One Experience Sympathy for Shakespeare's Shylock - in The Merchant of Venice. (2017, Oct 26). Retrieved from

How Does One Experience Sympathy for Shakespeare's Shylock - in The Merchant of Venice
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