The conflicting responses, which the character of Shylock provokes in the audience

Written sometime between 1596 and 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy and as a problem play; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved.

In the play, Shakespeare wove together two classic folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to take a pound of flesh, the other involving a fight for the hand of a rich princess with a correct choice among three chests and thereby winning his companion.

Shakespeare’s writing of the first tale centres on the Jewish moneylender Shylock who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opponent, the generous, faithful Antonio.

In Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice, the character Shylock provokes conflicting responses in the audience. Throughout the play, Shylock is portrayed as being a greedy, malicious and bitter man, who is hated for his religion and his money lending. However, the audience is still able to recognise an injustice in the way he is treated.

Shylock is shunned from society, principally because of his Jewish background. Therefore, the audience have conflicting feelings towards the character. Shakespeare achieves this effect through varying language techniques and dramatic devices.

In this essay I will be looking at the different perceptions of Shylock and how Shakespeare controls them in order to answer the question; is Shylock a victim or a villain?

The audience’s perceptions of Shylock vary dramatically throughout the play. For example, Shakespeare portrays Shylock as being racist, selfish, profane and without integrity in Act 1 Scene 3, during Shylock’s aside.

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Shylock tells the audience: ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’. This quote shows Shylock as being racist. Another quote from the aside shows the character as being without integrity: ‘If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him’. This quote also shows him as being grudge bearing, ruthless and unforgiving. Passages such as this aside give the audience the perception that Shylock is the villain of the play. Shylock is petty in his hatred of Antonio, and this gives the audience a bad impression of the character.

However, the audience’s opinion of Shylock changes as the play continues. For example, the audience take a more sympathetic view to Shylock in Act 3 Scene 1. Shylock’s ‘To bait fish withal’ speech is a pivotal moment in the play, and subsequently, is pivotal to the audience’s perceptions of Shylock. The speech shows Shylock’s sensitive side and sways the audience into thinking that he has reason to be embittered and that perhaps Antonio, plus the other men on the Rialto are the villains of the play, and Shylock is indeed a victim. Certain quotes from the play, such as the comparisons between Christians and Jews: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed…’ and ‘fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons’ are particularly powerful moments in the speech and appeal massively to the audience’s empathetic side.

Overall, the audience’s perception of Shylock swings from dislike to sympathy, and from contempt to understanding. Therefore, throughout the play it is hard to suggest whether Shylock is a victim or a villain.

During Shakespeare’s time, anti-Semitism was very prominent. Christians hated Jews for their religious backgrounds and principally, the Jewish role in the death of Jesus Christ. Because of this hatred, many Jews were shunned from society and discriminated against because of their religion. For example, when a Portuguese Jew called Roderigo Lopez was accused of plotting to kill the Queen. During the trial, Lopez was called ‘worse than Judas himself’ and ‘of a religious profession fit for any execrable undertaking’. However, far worse, the Judge himself referred to Lopez as ‘that vile Jew’.

In The Merchant of Venice Shylock’s character reflects the feelings harboured towards the Jews at the time. In the play, Shylock is not allowed to prosper and is particularly denied by Antonio, a wealthy Christian. It is this rivalry between Shylock the Jew and Antonio the Christian that provides the spine of the play.

In my opinion, Shakespeare used this rivalry to write the play and in turn highlight the prejudice that was very strong at the time towards Jewish people. Speeches and sections of the play, such as Shylock’s speech ‘To bait fish withal…’ portray the message that the Jews are spurned by society, however, they also ask the question of why the Jews are hated when there are so many similarities between Jews and Christians? Therefore, I suggest that Shakespeare wrote the play to educate the audience about Jewish people and how they should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs.

The relationship between Antonio and Shylock is very heated. This is highlighted in Act 1 Scene 3 when the bond is agreed between the two. Both men dislike each other and compete intensely for they are both in the money lending trade. Moreover, their hatred runs deep due to their conflicting religions. Antonio is a Christian, and Shylock is an orthodox Jew.

My first impressions of Shylock are that he is a shrewd businessman with a ruthless attitude. He is strong willed and determined. I also see him as being bitter and resentful. This opinion is based on Act 1 Scene 3, when Shylock agrees the bond with Antonio. This is apparent throughout the scene and is portrayed by the way Shylock is running the situation. He makes it clear that he is in control and the bond is made to seem far more important to Antonio and Bassanio than it is to Shylock. This is a dramatic device used by Shakespeare that is used to create an image of Shylock. Quotes such as: ‘Three thousand ducats – I think I may take his bond’ show Shylock as being care free about a very large sum of money. Words such as ‘may’ show that it is not necessary for Shylock to take his bond and consequently, he is in control. This, coupled with the characters demeanour throughout the scene paints the picture that Shylock is very clever, wily and assured with his finances.

However, Shylock’s aside in this scene conveys to the audience that all is not what it seems; Shylock is acting cool about the bond so as to seem carefree. The aside shows Shylock’s darker, far more cynical side. As aforementioned, he speaks of his contempt for Antonio as he is a Christian, and perhaps more importantly, he is a moneylender, who charges no interest on his loans, therefore is Antonio is strong competition to Shylock. Because of this rivalry and the hostility between the two men, either would take delight in having any hold over them. The fact that Shylock has this bind in the early stages of the play tells the audience that he is a villain because he has control over another man once the bond is sealed. Moreover, Antonio is a gentleman and is seen as the hero of the play; therefore, his enemy – Shylock – must be the villain, particularly if he has a hold over Antonio that could threaten his life.

Act 3 Scene 1 is a very instrumental part of the play when answering the question; is Shylock a victim or a villain? In this scene, Shylock reports the loss of his daughter to Solanio, Salarino and consequently the audience. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, has fled Venice and Shylock’s care with Lorenzo and all of her father’s wealth. This clearly angers Shylock, however this anger is furthered due to Lorenzo’s religious beliefs – he is a Christian. Shylock and his daughter are Jewish, the fact that Jessica should run away with someone who is not of Jewish background enrages Shylock.

This is particularly the case as Jessica ran away with a Christian – she ran away with someone whose religion had caused her father so much indiscretion and humiliation. In this scene it is ambiguous as to whether Shylock cares more for the money he has lost, or for the loss of his only daughter. For example, quotes such as: ‘I say my daughter is my own flesh and blood’ show that Shylock is distraught over the abandonment subjected to him by his daughter. Jessica was all Shylock had, and for her to leave him must have been both deeply hurtful and angering.

However, there are many quotes further on in the scene when Shylock is discussing his daughter’s plight with Tubal, who had been searching for Jessica that suggest otherwise. For example: ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin…’ this quote is a perfect example of how materialistic Shylock is and how he cares more for his money than for the one person in the world he had a real connection with. This quote in particular shows Shylock, as being a villain, as the audience would find it hard to relate to a man who wishes his own daughter be dead, let alone sympathise with such a person, no matter what has brought this wish to his mind.

The language used here is extremely vivid. For example, ‘I would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin’. Words such as ‘coffin’ and ‘hears’d’ are excellent expression used to really paint a picture in the audience’s mind of Shylock being a heartless murderer. Shakespeare makes it this way so as to create a sense in the audience’s mind of Shylock stood over his daughter’s lifeless body, with his riches returned to him. The effect of this on the audience’s opinion of Shylock is that of Shylock being ruthless and overwhelmingly materialistic. Consequently, Shylock is seen as a terrible villain.

This negative side to Shylock’s character is also highlighted in Act 2 Scene 8, when Salanio speaks of how Shylock reacted to his daughter’s renunciation. Salanio quotes Shylock as saying: ‘A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter, And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones, stolen by my daughter: justice, find the girl, She hath the stones upon her and the ducats.’ This quote shows how Shylock is frenetic about the loss of his daughter; however, he is inconsolable over the taking of his wealth and possessions. This shows Shylock to be obsessed by money, and greedy and selfish in his pursuit for wealth.

However, half way through Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock has an infinitely poignant speech in which he outlines the prejudices faced by him. This speech confuses the audience over whether Shylock is a villain or a victim. In this speech beginning ‘To bait fish withal…’ Shylock outlines the prejudices facing him and how they have embittered him. This speech appeals to the audience’s sympathy and makes the issue as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain clouded. During the speech, Shylock compares the similarities and differences between himself and Antonio. When explaining why Antonio has shunned him he says: ‘I am a Jew’. This is a massively important moment in the play. Here, the audience is at the point where they are most sympathetic for Shylock as he argues that the reason as to why he has been treated badly is simply for his religious beliefs. Shylock is seen as the victim of racial discrimination, which in modern society is seen as utterly disgraceful.

Shakespeare then continues to put forward Shylock’s case against Antonio by using many figurative language techniques. For example, vivid imagery is used throughout the speech and this is highlighted by quote such as: ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions…’ Here repetition is also used to highlight the fact that aside from their religious backgrounds there is nothing palpably different between Shylock the Jew and Antonio the Christian. Repetition is also used further on in the speech: ‘fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is’. This quote is an excellent example of the fantastic imaginary and persuasive language used by Shakespeare.

In this quote the audience is on the side of Shylock, the audience realises that he is a victim of racism and can be forgiven for his misdemeanours. This forgiveness is strengthened by Shylock furthering his argument in a far more forceful way as Shakespeare writes an air of defiance into Shylock’s persona: ‘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?’ This quote in particular shows that Shylock, and the entire Jewish race are but only human and in almost every way similar to their Christian counterparts. This has the effect on the audience of thinking that if Shylock is not entirely different from the men on the Rialto and Antonio in particular, why do they hate him so?

Shakespeare created this speech for the character to enthral the audience by creating two characters who oppose each other and who the audience can identify with. However as an alternative interpretation, I also believe that Shakespeare created this speech for the audience to give a voice to the Jewish community and perhaps give them a chance to persuade the Christian community to understand that Jews should not be discriminated against because of their beliefs, nor should any religious community. Shakespeare, in my opinion was not a racist man, nor was he afraid to shock an audience. I believe that Shylock’s speech was designed to both add weight to the conflict between the two men and consequently the two religions and to add weight to the Jewish plight, which in the days of A Merchant of Venice was met with more than a little trepidation.

Whilst the speech uses varying technical devices in order to enthral the audience in Shylock’s plight, the language of the speech can be very ordinary. The language still naturally holds a Shakespearean tone and rhythm, however many sentences are distinctly colloquial. Shakespeare uses this effect in order to make the character seem human. This will help the audience to relate to Shylock. This, in turn, will encourage the audience to continue to question whether Shylock is indeed a victim or a villain, which will interest them further in the play.

The structure of Act 3 Scene 1 is crucial as to whether the audience sees Shylock as a victim or a villain. The structure is worked so as Shylock is seen as a victim one minute and a villain the next. For example, Shylock is seen as a victim in his speech ‘To bait fish withal…’ yet is seen as a villain just minutes in the play later when he is conversing with Tubal about how Antonio has suffered misfortune with his fleet of ships, and is therefore subject to Shylock’s clauses as written in the bond. When Tubal explains Antonio’s disposition to Shylock, he responds by saying: ‘I am very glad of it, I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him, I am glad of it.’ This quote shows the villainous side to Shylock in full light. Shylock is cheered by the news of Antonio’s loss and looks forward to taking his pound of flesh without haste. This structure is one of the main reasons as to why it is unclear to the audience as to whether Shylock is a victim or indeed whether he is a villain.

After Act 3 Scene 1, the audience will be unsure as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. Shylock will be seen as a victim of racism due to his speech ‘to bait fish withal…’ and how the Christians scorn him, for example the rudeness shown to him by Salario and Salarino in the scene. The audience will also feel sympathetic to Shylock, as the one person in the world he thought he could trust in has abandoned him with almost his entire wealth.

However, the audience will also be aware that the character is materialistic, as shown by his response to his daughters fleeing. The audience will also feel that Shylock is viscous and a coward by how he is delighted by the news that Antonio must take the forfeit as written in the bond and Shylock can take a pound of flesh from him.

These conflicting responses, coupled with the structure of this particular scene will make it impossible to decide whether Shylock is definitely a victim or definitely a villain.

Another scene that contributes particularly to answering the question: is Shylock a victim or a villain? is Act 4 Scene 1 (the court scene). In this scene, Shylock is questioned as to whether he is certain he wants to take his bond, and with it Antonio’s life.

This scene is very dramatic, however, the audience would be relaxed as they would expect Shylock to give in to the pressure placed on him and not take his bond, the audience expects Shylock to show mercy and not be the villain that he seems to be.

However, this is not the case until Shylock is forced into negotiating the bond. It is necessary for Shakespeare to not allow Shylock to show mercy to Antonio, as this would be what the audience expects, which of course would make the outcome of the play rather predictable. Instead, suspense is maintained through Shylock’s relentless demand of a pound of Antonio’s flesh. While the audience expects Shylock to capitulate, he does not. This begins to make the audience unsure of the outcome of the play and makes them anxious as to whether the hero, Antonio, will suffer the unthinkable.

Portia also maintains suspense. Bassanio’s new love is acting as a lawyer for Antonio. She is particularly intelligent and is well aware that there are circumstances in the bond that mean Antonio’s life will ultimately be spared. However, she does not make these legislations known to the court for some time. She does this in order to give Shylock the opportunity to prove that he is not an unforgiving man by sparing Antonio’s life and by doing this suggesting that he is misunderstood and mistreated by the Christians. Portia waits right up until Shylock is preparing to plunge the knife into Antonio’s waiting torso before declaring her knowledge: ‘Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more but just a pound of flesh: if thou tak’st more or less than a pound…thou diest, all thy goods are confiscate.’

After Portia has declared this, the suspense is cleared. Shakespeare delivers this scene wonderfully, as the audience are certain that Shylock will surrender, until the knife is almost thrust into Antonio’s chest and Portia prevents the Christians’ death. The suspense is maintained throughout, and the audience are still unsure as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain, which keeps them eternally interested in the play.

A variety of dramatic devices are also used in Act 4 Scene 1. For example, the structure of the scene is used as a dramatic device. The scene is littered with long, drawn out speeches, made by the varying characters, particularly Shylock as he argues his case, and by Antonio who protests his innocence. The Duke and Portia also have large parts to play in this scene. The different characters tend to speak in turn throughout the scene, as one would expect from a court scene. This creates the sense of an argument. This coupled with some strong points from each corner make it very hard for the audience to conclude as to who is in the wrong. However, the underlying consensus will be that Antonio does not deserve to die for his misdemeanours.

This argumentative structure is particularly prominent towards the beginning of the scene. Firstly, the Duke states the case against Shylock and for Antonio, with a speech that is centred on appealing to Shylock’s guilty side, and is designed to make him see sense. The speech has a tone of superiority, even at a time when humility would be well advised, as Shylock holds al the cards. The very last line of the Dukes speech highlights this aloofness, when he spits: ‘We all expect a gentle answer Jew’. This quote is hugely effective in making the audience sympathetic towards Shylock’s cause, as the reference to Shylock’s religious beliefs are completely irrelevant to the running of this trial.

Following this, Shylock has his chance to speak and does so by insisting that he will secure his bond, and take a pound of Antonio’s flesh: ‘And by our Holy Sabbath I have sworn to have the due and forfeit of my bond’.

After both sides have stated their cases, the argument becomes more frantic with the characters remaining stubborn and continuing their argument in short bursts. For example, Bassanio argues with Shylock, suggesting that Shylock is inhumane with rhetorical questions, such as: ‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’ It is short and well-timed phrases or questionings such as these, which continue throughout the scene, making it difficult for the audience to conclude as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain.

As an alternative interpretation, these rhetorical questions and short, snappy accusations, which Shylock has no chance to dismiss, may reflect the trial itself. The trial is certainly less than fair, and the pressure that the defending characters put on Shylock is also unnecessary. This is similar to the way Shylock is unable to defend himself from the threats and accusations sent his way.

Overall, the structure of the scene makes it very hard for the audience to conclude as to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. This is due to the opposing arguments being put forward in turn by each member of the scene, thus creating an uncertainty as to who is in the right, or wrong. These arguments are both equally convincing. However, overall, Shylock is made to be seem villainous by the structure of the scene as he is forced to remain stubborn and repel the opposition time after time as their case is argued often and in short and some long bursts, rather than Shylock denying their pleaful requests once only.

Shakespeare has structured the scene this way in order for the audience to be unsure of who is in the right. The audience members will be able to identify with both sides of the argument, therefore they will want to follow the play further as the suspense is maintained as to who will prevail, and ultimately who will be the victim, and who will be the villain.

As the scene unfolds, Shylock seems to be facing a battle that was lost before he began. The population of the courtroom is against him and his wishes. Shylock faces tremendous pressure from the defenders of Antonio, and Antonio himself, not to mention the Duke (the judge) also.

While Shylock seems to be losing his battle, the audience feels ultimately that right has been done, in saving Antonio’s life, however, there is a sense of injustice as to how Shylock has been treated.

Throughout the scene, Shylock is badgered by his opposition as they try to make him feel guilty for claiming what is rightfully his. This is highlighted by quotes such as: ‘Not on thy sole, harsh Jew, thou maks’t thy knife keen. But no metal can, no, not the hangman’s axe, bear half the keenness of thy sharp envy. Can no prayers pierce thee?’ reasons Gratiano, as he seeks to save Antonio by swaying the mind of Shylock and his conscience.

Shylock continues to seek what is rightfully his, when Gratiano outrages: ‘O be thou damned, inexcrable dog’. This quote shows that Shylock is being treated awfully during the trial, and the trial is anything but fair. However, the audience will side with Antonio because they will believe that he does not deserve to die for his ‘crime’.

However, the truth remains that Shylock has been denied the right to a fair trial and is being bullied by the many people who oppose him, just as they bully him on the rialto. This will endear the audience to Shylock, and will make him seem more of a victim than a villain for large parts of this scene. This is highlighted particularly at the beginning of the scene when the audience believe that he will relent and not exact his revenge on Antonio, and when the Duke opens the case with a speech that is very patronising and cruel to Shylock. For example, the aforementioned quote ‘We all expect a gentle answer Jew’ is the last line in his speech, which will make the audience feel great sorrow for Shylock, as he is seemingly shunned due to his religious beliefs.

Shylock is offered compensation in place of the money he has lost, three thousand ducats and more is offered his way in order to save the life of Antonio. However, Shylock denies this opportunity. This shows that Shylock is not as materialistic and greedy as his reaction to the loss of his daughter had suggested. His reasoning highlights this: ‘If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts and every part a ducat I would not draw them; I would have my bond.’ This shows Shylock to have some morals, he will stand by his beliefs, however, this is contradicted as his beliefs involve the murdering of a largely innocent man.

Shylock is offered the money repeatedly throughout the scene. However, he denies it upon every occasion it is thrust in his direction. Antonio and his defence offer the money to Shylock repeatedly in order to appeal to his pocket, and his mind, and ultimately forfeit the bond. However, Shylock will not falter. This creates an opinion in the audience of Shylock being a villain. This is because Shylock must ignore the pleading of the Christians each time they remonstrate with him. This means that Shylock will deny Antonio many times, therefore the audience begin to realise that he is serious about exacting his bond, and taking the life of another, thus rendering him a murderer, and a villain of the highest calibre.

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The conflicting responses, which the character of Shylock provokes in the audience. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

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