Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Shylock the infamous money-lender in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is a complex character and far more than a caricature of a Jewish villain. In Elizabethan times Jews were often discriminated against because of their faith and beliefs. It was accepted for Christians to discriminate against Jews. Anti – Semitism was based on religious events.

The medieval myth that Jews needed to kill young boys once a year to reinact the death of Christ and use the blood for the making of unleaven bread, had its roots from the biblical account of the massacre of the innocents, which King Herod carried out because he was terrified of being overthrown as the King of Judea by the infant Christ.

Many however, also believed that if Jews converted to Christianity, all of their ‘sins’ would be forgiven and they would be accepted into the arms of the Christian God. It was widely believed that Jews were responsible for the execution of Christ and so they were believed to be working with the devil.

Although Jews were not allowed to own property, they were often prosperous business and engaged in money-lending, which Elizabethan Christians were not allowed to do. All the prejudices that people had concerning Jews prompted them to become portrayed as evil villains of Elizabethan dramas. At the time The Merchant of Venice was written, the Jew had become the character that the Elizabethan audience loved to hate; so Shakespeare may have seen an opportunity to make money and included Shylock as the villainous Jew in his play.

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Another example of a Jew being used as a villain in an Elizabethan drama is, The Jew of Malta or The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe. In this play, Barabas carries out many immoral actions and is often unfavorably compared to other men of different faiths. Shylock is first recognised as a typical Jewish villain, when he reveals to the audience (out of earshot from Antonio and Bassanio) his ambition, ‘If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

Shylock’s statement is sinister and twisted and gives the audience the feeling that all Shylock is out to do is to ruin Antonio. Shylock later discloses the reason why he wishes for Antonio to be caught in a weak spot is because he is a Christian and a threat to Shylock’s business as Antonio loans money out to his friends without charging interest. This shows quite a negative attitude towards Antonio and Christians. The reference to an ‘ancient grudge’ could also represent the treatment of Jews through the ages by Christians in general.

Perhaps Shylock is taking out his anger on Antonio, to avenge the way he has been treated by Christians throughout his life. The fact that Antonio spat at Shylock would have given the concept of revenge a personal edge. Another point in the play where Shakespeare depicts Shylock as the typical Jewish rogue is when he reveals the bond, which Antonio must sign, to borrow three thousand ducats. ‘Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me. This creates a sense of hatred within the audience towards Shylock, as this is a despicable idea. This is also an action of a typical Jewish villain as Elizabethan’s believed that Jews were bloodthirsty from what they had read in the Bible. So, Shylock’s desire to draw his victim’s blood is a stereotypical action of a Jewish villain by Elizabethan standards. Shylock is using Antonio’s need to borrow money as an opportunity for revenge to perhaps ‘feed fat the ancient grudge’ he has for him.

Most characters who comment on Shylock in the play only present him as a villain and see him as nothing else. When Jessica speaks of Shylock, her father, she doesn’t mention anything about loving him but she says she is ashamed of him, ‘To be ashamed to be my father’s child! ‘ To be ashamed of your own parents is an unfortunate position to be in. This shows how detestable Shylock is as he is despised by his own daughter. The reason for Jessica to be ashamed of her father maybe the fact that she dislikes the way he conducts business. I am not his manners. ‘ This suggests that Jessica may know about the bond Shylock has made with Antonio and feels disgusted at her father’s behavior. This is probably the last straw for Jessica and this may be why she decides to leave home and start a new life with a Christian, perhaps to fit in with society. At this point the audience would empathise with Jessica as no one would want to hear that their father conducts his business in a particularly threatening and vengeful manner.

It is obvious that father and daughter are not emotionally close as he is more worried about the money and jewels that Jessica took with her than about her well being. When Tubal returns with the news that he has not found where she is the first thing that Shylock says, ‘A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt! ‘ This remark shows clearly that Shylock’s mind appears to focus exclusively on mercenary matters. He is not concerned about his daughter’s welfare but is very concerned about his missing money.

At this point the audience probably realise that Jessica has made a lucky escape from her selfish and unloving father. Shylock receives more hatred from the audience and they probably see him to deserve to lose everything at the end as he really is a cold man and all he cares for is his fortune. Shylock is such a bitter man that he wishes Jessica was dead, ‘I would my daughter dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would … and the ducats in her coffin. The wish of his daughter’s death emphasises just how bitter and twisted Shylock actually is. ‘The ducats in her coffin. ‘ This shows that Shylock doesn’t really care for anything or anyone else in his life apart from himself, his money and getting revenge on Antonio. Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, dislikes Shylock for the reason that he is not paid fairly and he also believes that he would become a Jew if he served Shylock any further. Lancelot says to Bassanio about Shylock, ‘you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath / enough.

This shows that Lancelot also believes that only Christians have the ability to have the blessing of God and perhaps that Jews will go hell because they are ‘sinning’ by being Jewish and not Christian. Salarino and Solanio, Christian friends of Antonio, don’t think very highly of Shylock as Solanio says, ‘Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. ‘ Here Shakespeare causes the audience to think about how much hatred someone must have for another in order to call them ‘the devil’.

This is a horrible insult as it implies Shylock is an evil person and makes the audience feel more loathing towards him. They would agree with Solanio that only someone wicked could think of such a despicable thing as the bond Shylock has made with Antonio. The reference to ‘the devil’ would have been even more of an insult in Elizabethan times as hell and the devil were taken literally in those days. They believed that ‘the devil’ was an active evil which was out to corrupt honest people. So for people to think of Shylock as ‘the devil’ is a massive insult.

Not only is Solanio insulting Shylock but he is also insulting the whole Jewish community, ‘here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. ‘ This could be interpreted in the way that Solanio may be saying that all Jews are in the image of ‘the devil’ this could be very insulting to the Jewish community as in those day the term ‘the devil’ was taken in a very literal way. There are three points in the play however, where Shakespeare attempts to extract as much sympathy as possible for Shylock, from the audience.

The first point in the play the audience may start to feel sympathy for Shylock is in his ‘Hath a dog money? ‘ speech in Act one Scene three. In this speech, Shakespeare depicts Shylock as the victim of Antonio’s vicious hatred towards him. The repetition of dog throughout the speech shows the harshness of Antonio’s treatment of Shylock; ‘And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur’ At this point the audience might feel a great sympathy for Shylock as no one can imagine how it must feel to be treated as a stray dog.

Shakespeare shows how much Shylock loathes this treatment as he carries on repeating the term dog throughout the famous speech. This would encourage the audience to understand Shylock’s feelings and try to see the situation from his point of view. Antonio humiliates Shylock in public, ‘In the Rialto you have rated me / About my monies and my usances. ‘ Antonio curses Shylock in the street just because he earns a living by charging interest on money he loans out. This again shows that Shylock has been victimised for something we would consider minor and way in which he earns money.

From an audience’s perspective in Elizabethan times this would probably be accepted as it was against a Christian’s morals to be involved in this kind of business. Today, however, the behavior which Antonio has displayed would be highly unacceptable as the way in which someone earns money has nothing to do with anyone else. The audience would be led to sympathise further with Shylock when he reveals the awful things that Antonio said to him the past, ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine. ‘ The language that Antonio is claimed to have used is vindictive and bitter; it is also extremely cutting.

This creates a sense of awkwardness within the audience hearing about Antonio’s racist language. The term ‘cut-throat dog’ shows just how merciless and unscrupulous Shylock is; it also suggests someone who is at their lowest ebb. It can also be seen as an extremely vicious dog that cuts people throat it almost resembles a wolf. Shakespeare may have intended to show Shylock as the victim of harsh racial abuse. Antonio treats Shylock with absolute disdain as Shylock keeps repeating ‘cur’, so this shows that Antonio actually hates Shylock.

A further point in the play where the audience is made to feel sympathy for Shylock is in his ‘Hath not Jew…? ‘ speech in Act three Scene one. It is debatable as to whether Shakespeare is trying to poke fun at Shylock in this speech. However, I believe Shakespeare is genuinely trying to create a feeling of compassion towards Shylock. For an Elizabethan audience, the speech would cause them to contemplate how they treat Jews when Shylock explains that they are basically the same as everyone else, ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Shylock is desperately trying to seek acceptance from the people around him. This would create a great sense of sadness for Shylock as he is only trying to live his life just like everyone else. Shakespeare writes Shylock’s speech as if he is pleading with Salarino to stop treating him as if he is something other than a human being. Perhaps Shakespeare is using Shylock as the voice of the Jewish community talking to the Christian community. This makes the audience sympathise with Shylock and see that it is wrong for someone to have to plead with others to recognise their humanity.

Shylock is putting the point across that he is only behaving in the way that he has been treated. This speech produces the maximum amount of sympathy from the audience as Shylock says all this to Solanio and Salarino after he has heard that his daughter, Jessica has runaway. The audience would probably feel disgust for Salarino and Solanio as they taunt Shylock when he is at his lowest. The last point when the audience may feel that Shylock is a victim is near the end of the play when he leaves court a broken man after losing his money and his faith.

Antonio insists, ‘He presently become a Christian. ‘ Shylock no longer has anything to live for he has lost his family, his wealth and now his faith. The audience can only imagine how it feels to have your beliefs forced upon you. The final feeling the audience would have of Shylock is sympathy as he promptly leaves the play never to be heard of again by the audience. This links in to an earlier point which I made, that in Elizabethan times where Christians actually believed that if you were anything other than a Christian you would go to hell.

So perhaps Antonio was actually trying to ‘save’ Shylock from hell. Shakespeare does present Jews in a sympathetic light and proves he is not being simply racist by the two most well known speeches in the play. I think Shakespeare uses Shylock as a Jewish villain as it was a great seller in that period of time to have a Jewish character which the Elizabethan audience loved to hate. However, Shakespeare does attempt to challenge the stereotype throughout the play as he uses Shylock’s ‘Hath a Jew…? ‘ speech as a challenge to the treatment of Jews.

Mostly I think Shakespeare was more interested in earning money than being racist and anti-Semitic towards Jews. Overall, I think that Shakespeare intends to present Shylock as a villain but he also shows his human side which perhaps explains why Shylock acts the way he does. I believe that Shylock received his just desserts at the end of the play as he was prepared to kill a man just for revenge. Although Shylock was driven to this by abuse, he could have shown his human side and acted as the better man. The fact that Shylock even thought of such a bond proves he is a villain through and through.


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Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice
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