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The Merchant of Venice is a tragic comedy ,set in Venice in the late 15th century. Shylock, who is a Jewish moneylender, is trying to make a living in a country that despises him for being Jewish. Before the plot even starts, Shylock is condemned by the audience for being a Jew, and a moneylender. The Christians by religion were unable to lend money and the Jews could basically do nothing else, this made the Christians hate the Jews even more.
In Venice there was a great opposition between Christians and Jews, for example the centre of the Venetian community was Christian and around the perimeter of Venice lived the Jews, who were not included in the rest of Venice. Because of their religion, They were portrayed as inferior. The play was a big risk for Shakespeare to take as it showed the prejudice towards the Jews. If his play portrayed Jews too well so that it offended the queen or if any of the audience took offence it may have cost him his life. But cleverly Shakespeare captured understanding and sympathy from the audience towards Shylock.
What Is Shylock
In act 1, scene 3 where Shylock first appears, his first line in the play is ‘Three thousand ducats’. We can look at this sentence in two ways; as a cold, greedy man only interested in his money, or as a man making a living at one of the only jobs available for him. Most of the time he fits the cold, greedy character more, because he makes such a big point about locking up the house and really gets annoyed with his daughter for failing to. But then occasionally we see a streak of a man who’s lost the person he loved the most, his wife, and who’s heart has hardened only by the hate shown towards him.
From this manner of his, now Jessica, his only family member is ashamed of him; ‘To be ashamed to be my fathers child. ‘ He ends up by striking his daughter, reducing her to tears, making the point of how locking up his house and protecting his possessions are very important. These extreme actions portray him as a man so scared of the outside world and mistreated so much that he feels its necessary to hurt and disrespect the only family he has so as to emphasise the importance of protecting what is his.
As Jessica, his daughter, elopes with Lorenzo, Shylock earns pity from the audience when Bassanio is told that, ‘My daughter is my flesh and blood’, meaning that by taking her, a part of him has been taken too. But still, in Jessica’s defence, her father needed to learn from his harsh actions towards her. When he discovers his daughters disappearance, he screams in rage, finally letting out a deep emotion which we thought Shylock never had, ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! Only Christian ducats! ‘. This speech of his could have earned a lot of sympathy from the audience if he didn’t mention the ducats.
He had compared his own daughter to money, demonstrating that he thought of his money as important, if not more important than his daughter. Which once again outlines this stereotypical, greedy ‘Jewish’ figure. But the most distinguished sympathy cry in the play is Shylock’s famous plea for equality in Act three, Scene Five, which victimises him and lets us see him in a whole new light; ‘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’.
This equality speech is meant to soften the audience towards Shylock, even if it is only momentarily, since he proceeds to carry out his bond in which he’s able to legally commit murder to Antonio. The court scene is Shylock’s only chance for some justice, if only as a way of revenge for how he has been treated all his life. The court is very biased from the minute Shylock is ordered in by the judge; ‘Go on, and call the Jew into the court! .’ Thus, Shylock is having an unfair trail. He is being judged in a Christian court, not a court of law.
Shylock had lent Bassanio three thousand ducats in order that Antonio would pay him back within a month. Antonio and Shylock made a bond together that meant that if Antonio could not pay back the money, Shylock could claim a pound of flesh nearest to Antonio’s heart. Due to Antonio’s bad luck, he could not pay back the money. Which gave Shylock the right to carry out his bond. Shylock is now on the very point of cutting into Antonio’s skin when Portia, dressed as a doctor of law, stops him and proclaims that the bond was for him to cut only a pound of flesh.
The bond doth give thee here no jot of blood’. From this she reveals that there is a flaw in the bond and Shylock is to take a pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood, which of course is impossible; ‘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’. His own bond has ruined his chances of revenge. He could still kill Antonio, but would then loose everything that is and ever was dear to him. This gave him no choice but to resign from the bond and loose his chance of revenge that he was so sure he would achieve.
Shylock is, at this point, I think more humiliated than he had been at any other point in the play. Shylock has his possessions taken away because of the attempted murder of Antonio, who made two conditions of his life: he must, firstly, become a Christian and, secondly, leave all of his possessions to Jessica and Lorenzo in his will. So, besides him being converted to a Christian and humiliated in court, loosing his possessions and daughter, his friend Tubal left him. Shylock is iscolated not only from Christans but also from Jews.
In a way it is quite ironic how the one thing that ruined him, is the one thing that he is left with; Christianity. I think Shylock had been sent right to the point of insanity, he had been victimised all his life. And maybe he only acts in such a horrible manner in a reflex to how he had been treated. So, if racism hadn’t victimised him then maybe his temperament would be gentler. I think that Shakespeare presented Shylock in many different aspects and it will depend on the eyes of the individual to which side is seen more clearly. I think Shylock is presented as a comical character to some and both victimised and a villian.