Shakespeare’s romantic comedy ‘The Merchant of Venice’ features ‘Shylock’, although he is referred to by most of the other characters as ‘the Jew’. Despite all the wrong doings committed against him, it is suggested to us by Shakespeare that he is more of a villain than a victim; this is because Shakespeare uses him as a Daniel to test the personalities of the other characters and the audience. However we must consider the misconception of Jews and the anti-Semitism shown towards them in the Elizabethan era, which may be responsible for the treatment of Shylock.
When we first meet Shylock in the play it is no coincidence that his first words are ‘three thousand ducats’. Shakespeare is subtly trying to suggest early on in the play the importance of money to Shylock. With our perception of Shylock of being attracted to money it automatically makes the audience think he is greedy and selfish. Shakespeare is trying to hint to us that perhaps Shylock isn’t the kind of character you would like to be associated with.
This is re-enforced by the fact that he says he hates Antonio. ‘I hate him for he is a Christian; but more, for that in low simplicity he lends out money gratis’.
Shylock partly hates Antonio because he is a Christian, but more because he doesn’t charge interest when he lends money so in effect he is putting him out of business. This would seem quite petty to the audience this early in the play because we don’t know any background knowledge of the two characters and how they treat one another.
It is because of his hate for Antonio that Shakespeare’s Shylock seems very ‘interested’ in the offer made to him because it means he would be ‘above’ Antonio, as Antonio would owe him money.
On stage this looks like an act of kindness on Shylocks part because effectively he is helping out Bassanio. But it is a slightly suspicious act because in that scene he is insulted by Antonio, he is referred to as ‘the devil’ having ‘an evil soul’. He is even compared to as ‘a goodly apple rotten to the heart’. On top of this Antonio says he is ‘likely to spit on him again’ yet Shylock still lends him the money. This should make no sense to the audience because if anyone else as in that position of being treated like vermin by someone, they wouldn’t go and do that person a favour.
So if it weren’t for the terms of the bond ‘an equal pound of flesh’ we would think that Shylock was a character full of forgiveness and kindness but we can’t help but be suspicious by the terms of the bond, whether he really is going after a pound of Antonio’s flesh which might kill him. This act suggests early on that Shylock is plotting something against Antonio so we are left at the end of the first scene in which we see Shylock slightly confused at whether or not Shylock is the kind, forgiving character he seems.
As we read on in the play, the doubt we have about Shylock not completely being the innocent character fades slightly and we can sympathise with him for the deeds being done against him. We find out that Antonio is not the only one who is constantly mocking and insulting Shylock and that almost all the Christians in the play regard him as a lower being, less than a man. He is called a ‘cur’, a ‘dog’ and wherever he goes he is never referred to as Shylock but people simply know him as ‘the Jew’ and he has to live with being called this all the time. For example in the court scene even the Duke directly calls him ‘Jew’.
Shylock shows a great sense of character throughout the play, even though he and his Jewish faith is always insulted he doesn’t seem like he is affected by it and most of the time stays calm and pleasant like nothing has been said. ‘Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turn Jew’. Shylocks reaction to this is very surprising. He ignores this comment as it were nothing and carries on talking to Tubal. Being a contemporary audience we find these sorts of comments outrageous and would not think of using this kind of language because it signifies deep hatred and insult that we do not use any more.
So we immediately sympathise with Shylock and now consider him very much as a victim. However at the time the play was written this sort of abuse towards the Jews was closer to the norm, so to an Elizabethan audience it would not have seemed at that time that the Christians were doing anything wrong. This is because in that era when countries were being colonised and nationality was very important, people had a very low opinion of other nations because every nation saw themselves as great, so racism would have been high.
Nowadays with so much immigration occurring all over the globe people have become much more tolerant of other nations so racism has decreased. In Act 2 Scene 5 we are shown yet another side of Shylock, we are shown him as a father. We would expect him to be the gentle, kind figure we recognised him as in the opening scenes but to our surprise we see him as almost the opposite of this. We find that he treats his own daughter as you might a prisoner, she is left with his instructions and is supposed follow only what he wants her to do which is ‘Lock up my doors… stop my houses ears’.
She is told to stay inside, lock the doors and bar the windows whilst there is a party happening outside and she is practically forbidden to even look out the window. Being a young lady well capable of looking after herself this must seem like torture to Jessica because she is being treated like a child. Again though this only seems like a harsh act to the modern reader, in the Elizabethan era daughters were expected to follow her father’s orders word for word so this would not have been to sympathise with Jessica for. In fact her reaction to this might have cost life. Farewell, and if my fortune not be cross’d, I have a father, you a daughter, lost’. It seems that she had planned her runaway before hand so this sort of treatment was probably normal for Shylock.
In contrast to the Elizabethan way of thinking, the modern reader might think that running away isn’t such a bad thing to do seeing as she is capable of looking after herself. Even though we know the way in which Shylock treats his daughter, we have to sympathise with him because Jessica is his only child and however harsh a father he might be it obviously hurt him a great deal to lose her by the way he acts in the next scene. my own flesh and blood to rebel’. The repetition of this phrase implies that Shylock is very upset by the loss of his daughter, we recognise this because the strong language he is using, for example ‘to rebel’ is repeated along with ‘flesh and blood’. The repletion of these words suggests Shylock has become fixated on his daughter being his own flesh and blood. This suggests that because he has been tormented so much he has to hold on to the fact that his daughter is his flesh and blood as if it were slipping away.
We are made to sympathise further with Shylock because as well as having to deal with the loss of his daughter he has to come to terms with the fact that she took money from him and also his dead wife’s ring. ‘Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels! ‘ ‘My daughter! O my ducats! Oh my daughter’. Salarino is not helping Shylock in any way; in fact he tries to make his misery worse ‘There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory’.
This comment is aggressively thrown at Shylock purposely trying to get a negative reaction from him and is typical of the abuse being constantly thrown at him. In response to this, Shylock starts talking about his bond with Antonio, which signifies again his ability to ignore the insults being thrown at him. Based on this evidence it would seem that Shylock is a man more sinned against than sinning but more evidence is yet to be uncovered. After this it seems as if Shylock has had enough and is about to break down from all the abuse he’s suffered and this is explored in his emotional speech in the scene.
Shylock pours out his heart in this speech at first telling of how Antonio treats him and then delves deeper and painfully recalls about his own race: (‘He hath disgraced, hindered, laughed, mocked, scorned and thwarted me because I am a Jew’). We can tell he has put his heart behind what he has said because of the strong emotive language that is used such as ‘disgraced’ Shylock is telling us for the first time the pitiful and numerous ways in which he is being treated. It proves to the audience that his life must almost be a living hell.
He tells us how he is not just hated and used at people’s leisure, he is made to look like a fool which can often hurt more and people go out of their way to do it. Being aware of the way he is treated and the feeble reason for it (in our eyes) we are able to understand why Shylock ‘hates’ him so much and from this example it seems he has a very good reason to. Shylock goes on to try and make Salarino and Solanio understand that there really is no reason for Christians to hate Jews. ‘Hath not a Jew eyes… if you prick us do we no bleed’.
Shakespeare makes many of these sorts of comparisons between the Jew and everyone else. These being genuine characteristics of men Shakespeare makes us feel genuinely sorry for Shylock himself and not just for Jews in general. It seems like after this point in the play Shylock turns into a different character. We can notice this change because his obsession with money comes to an end and he is no longer interested by it. Shylock suddenly becomes so blinded by his bond and revenge that he loses most of our sympathy very quickly. ‘if you wrong us shall we not revenge… he villainy you teach me I will execute’. To the audience, this sounds like an act of villainy is to come because of the strong and hate driven language used by Shylock, e. g. ‘revenge… execute’. From now we fear that Shylock is going to try and get something out of this. It is as if all the ill treatment he has been receiving is going to come out and he is going to release his anger. In the last scene we see Shylock in, it is not the same Shylock we have witnessed in the early stages of the play: he is now a man fuelled by hate and anger who has set out to achieve one thing, ‘revenge’.
Nothing is going to stop him from getting what he thinks is rightfully his. ‘I shall have my bond’. Even after several reasonable and eloquent pleas for mercy and offers of very generous sums of money (which used to be his life) Shylock is still intent on having his bond. We can tell this because he ‘whets thy knife’ on the sole of his shoe. This action makes the scene more dramatic and we really start to see the product of all his hate bubbling inside of him.
It is as if his loathing for Antonio is seeping out now because even the thought of cutting the flesh off Antonio excites him a great deal. ‘Most learned judge’. Shylock goes as far as to flatter the judge because he is so happy. This gets sickening to hear because he is not out to just prove a point, Shylock is after Antonio’s ‘life’ and this in most peoples eyes in an unmistakeable act of villainy. When at last Portia puts an end to Shylock’s cruel intension, it is not surprising that we find Shylock broken and feeble.
He has been stopped dead in his tracks trying to fulfil what he thinks would be getting back some of the injustice that has faced Jews all over the world. As the penalty of Shylock’s actions is given out no one stops to think about why he wouldn’t give up his cause, no one cares because he is a Jew even though Antonio can see the reasoning behind it. ‘He seeks my life, his reasoning well I know’ (Act 3 Scene 3). The terms he has to deal with are very severe, he has to be content with losing all his possessions and horrifically he is forced to convert to the Christian faith.
It is because of these conditions that it doesn’t come as a shock that his last lines are ‘I pray you give me leave to go from hence; I am not well’. These touching words are the last of a man torn by anger, hate and sorrow. This is where Shakespeare’s genius shows because it leaves us with the difficult task of deciding whether Shylock has got what he deserved or has been subject to an incredible injustice. To say that Shylock is a man more sinned against than sinning is a reasonable thing.
As we have heard, Shylock has had so many wrong doings against him and was constantly being bombarded with acts of cruelty, that it has ultimately resulted in him losing everything he has ever cared about including his sense of self and his health. Shylock is meant to be ridiculed by the audience and even though the play is supposed to be a romantic comedy there is a hidden depth to the play. We must recognise the difference between Shylocks apparel and his personality and if we look deeply we can see that Shakespeare’s Shylock is not the villainous character he is made to be.