The Merchant of Venice, Shylock: Victim or Villain

“The Merchant of Venice was probably written in either 1596 or 1597, after such early plays such as Romeo & Juliet and Richard III but before the great tragedies of Shakespeare’s later life. The Merchant of Venice is an intriguing drama of love greed, and in some aspects racism but most importantly revenge. The cross dressing heroine and the Italian location makes it similar to earlier comedies but the characters of Shylock and Portia Shakespeare’s first great heroine, elevate it to the first rank of his plays.


Shylock is a Jewish moneylender in Venice; the Christians have abused him in his city, especially Antonio and his friends. I think that this is partly because Shylock is the only Jew in most of the city. “His quest for revenge consumes his cunning one-track mind.” (Internet) This makes the audience think whether he is a victim? Or whether he is a villain? In my essay I will be looking for this and supporting my ideas with evidence from quotes from the text.

Shylock is a very different character from the others because of his religion, beliefs, and the way he dresses and other characters like Antonio think that he is a target for them to pick on and be nasty and mean to him because of his creed, Shylock tells us some of the names Antonio has called him and also the way he has treated him:

“You call me a misbeliever” (1:3:33:108

“Cut dog-throat” (1:3:33108)

“Spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (1:3:33:109)

These three quotes are a real insult to Shylock by the first quote Antonio cannot judge how much Shylock believes in his religion, or if he even follows the rules of his religion that is up to Shylock to decide.

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What is even worse is that Antonio refers to him as a “dog” this has terribly

offended Shylock because Jews think that dogs are not sacred animals and that the devil lives inside them. Also Antonio refers to his clothing and the way he dresses and Antonio disrespects the way Shylock dresses because none of the Christians wear a gabardine. This makes me feel sorry for Shylock for the reason that he doesn’t deserve to be treated in that way. The worst thing is that it is not only verbal racism but also physical too. The audience during Shakespeare’s time would have found the spitting quite hilarious since they would not witness someone spewing on their enemy.

Later on in the play you will find that it is not only Antonio that is felonious towards Shylock it is also Lorenzo:

“Faithless Jew” (2:4:63:37)

Lorenzo refers to Shylock as if he is not a devoted Jew. We can interpret this in two different ways, firstly being just that he doesn’t have faith in his religion so that is why he is a “Faithless Jew.” Or others could interpret it by thinking how can he be a Jew if he doesn’t have faith or if he doesn’t believe in his religion how can he be a Jew.

Shakespeare has put to opposite words “faithless” and “Jew ” in one sentence in the above quote, this is called an oxymoron, Shakespeare does this to make the sentence stand out and also to make us feel sorry for Shylock; that is exactly what it does do it makes us sympathise for Shy lock and it makes us think why does he have to go through all of this, but that is how now’s audience would feel but back in Shakespearian time when the play was written and performed the audience would have loved this sort of thing they would almost certainly find this humorous and pleasant, but then again they only thought of it as a play.

In these four above quotes I think that Shylock is a victim because of the way Antonio and Lorenzo have treated him. It makes me wonder what do they achieve by making fun of other peoples religion and lifestyle? Why do they do this? Do they find it fun? But what they don’t think about is how the other person feels, maybe Shylock should treat them the same way they have treated him so that they would know what it is like to be treated in that way.

When this play was acted out in front of a Shakespearian audience they would have hissed, mocked and booed him as soon as he stepped foot on the stage they had no consideration

what so ever but in this day and age nobody does this because it is a sign of racism.

Antonio asks Shylock for 3000 Ducats to lend to Bassanio, Bassanio needs this money to impress Portia she is the girl he has fallen in love with it was love at first sight basically. Portia comes from a rich and wealthy family her father has just died and in his will he has written that Portia must marry who ever chooses the right casket. So anyway Bassanio is not rich and nor does he come from a rich or wealthy family so this is why he needs the money. Shylock agrees to lend the money to him as long as he has a guarantee; in this case his guarantor is Antonio this means that if Bassanio cannot pay the money back on time then Antonio must pay the money back to Shylock but as we all know Shakespeare’s plays always have a twist of some sort in them here’s the twist to this one, well if both Antonio and Bassanio do not pay the money back on time Shylocks guarantee is that:

“An equal pound of your fair flesh…in whatever

part of your body pleaseth me”


The first impression that I get from this quote is that can Shylock actually be this mean to Antonio, okay, Antonio has been mean to him but there is no need to go this far and put someone’s life at risk.

The least he could do is give Antonio a chance if he doesn’t pay the money back in time, anyway Antonio knows that his ships will come back from sea a day before he owes the money to Shylock.

So he also agrees to the bond, Bassanio gives Antonia a chance to back out but Antonio says but not in so many words, no its alright I am your friend and what are friends for, and he agrees to the bond.

Well I suppose other people would say it is because Antonio is calling him names and offending his religion so why should Shylock have to put up with it because Antonio isn’t respectful just because Shylock is the only Jew in the trade. So Shylock thinks that this is his opportunity to get his own back on Antonio for every thing he has ever said or done to Shylock.

This makes Shylock look like a villain because if you think about films the ‘baddies’ always have to get their own back on the victim and this is what is happening here.

Also if you have noticed that Antonio and Shylock have switched roles of victim and villain.

Then again some people might think that he is only doing this because Antonio has called him names so why can’t he go through the same pain as Shylock, they might also say that it is not fair if Antonio can bully Shylock and Shylock copes with it and doesn’t do anything about it and Antonio gets away with it, so Shylock should get his back and make him suffer. Bassanio Antonio and Shylock all sign and agree with the bond.

What makes things worse is the fact that he is the only person in the trade who charges interest but in this case he is not charging interest because Antonio says to him it is not in the nature of friendship to take interest on money lent to a friend so Shylock says well I am your friend and the quote he uses to tell Antonio that he is not going to charge interest is:

“And take no doit of usance for my money” (1:3:35:136-137)

So now Shylock is being all nice again and not charging interest but this might be because of the bond that they have agreed to, Shylock has probably already thought about it before and he almost certainly thinks that the guarantee is a substitute for the bond

Shakespeare also uses a simile which Antonio speaks about, it is referring to Shylock as villain:-

” An evil soul producing holy witness is like

a villain with a smiling cheek”

This simile I think is very effective because Antonio is saying that Shylock is evil, but on the outside to everyone else he seems nice, helpful and good. He shows that he is a holy person and doing good for people, maybe praying, he could be a priest, for example but his intentions are not so good, portraying something different, maybe the way he acts

on the outside but deep down inside he is “evil.” He is Evil by doing bad deeds; he only cares about himself and his

money, as we will find out.

Later in the play Jessica who is Shylocks daughter is planning to run away from home with Lancelot.

Lancelot used to be Shylocks worker but he quit to go and work with Bassanio but we don’t know why.

Was it because Shylock was mean? Who knows, but I think that if his own daughter wants to run away from home, then there must be something wrong with him. Was he mistreating her? Was he ashamed of her? Was he neglecting her?

” To be ashamed to be fathers child”


” I am sorry thou Wilt leave my father”


There must definitely be something wrong with Shylock, because Jessica is ashamed to be his daughter.

She is also planning to change her religion to Christianity because she loves Lancelot so much and wants to marry him. Jessica wants to have less to do with Shylock as possible, and wants to end the relationship with him.

“Become a Christian and thy loving wife”


But later on Jessica tells Bassanio, Salerio, and Portia that she overheard her father talking to Tubal and Chus who are also Jewish, he was telling them how much he would prefer Antonio’s flesh than twenty times as much sum of money owed.

“…Rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times

the value of the sum … he did owe him”


This is really showing that he is a villain, but even if he said it the other way round, people would still think that he is greedy and all he ever cares about is his money and how much wealth he possesses.

The 3 months have ended and Antonio hasn’t succeeded to pay back Shylocks money, because all his ships have been shipwrecked whilst out at sea.

Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio; he sends his sends his final regards, saying how happy he was that Bassanio and Portia have at last got engaged. He then goes on and says his final farewells, at this point Bassanio feels sorry for him and he thinks that this is all his fault:

“The paper as the body of my friends”


This quote is saying that a pathetic little bond written on some paper is costing him Antonio’s life.

This quote is also a metaphor because how can a bit of paper be your body it can’t, it is impossible, and Shakespeare uses this to express that the quote means that the paper is responsible for Antonio’s life.

Shylock has been to the government to change the law because he wants his rights also before this scene he has a bit of anger to let out because Salerio says to Shylock oh if Antonio doesn’t pay you back the money you’re not really going to take a pound of his flesh are you? This really set the spark to the fire:

“Feed my revenge”


Shakespeare has used some personification because you can’t really feed revenge can you? This means that Shylock has been through a lot and now he wants to get his revenge, the word “feed” meaning like without food nobody can live so he is saying it keeps Antonio alive to pick on people this makes him look as if he is a villain.

“He… laughed at my loses mocked at my gains scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains.”


This is a very strong part of his speech because he is once again telling us how Antonio has been treating Shylock and as we can see he has been racist, insulting he has teased and has humiliated him, so in a way I think that Shylock has a right to do something to Antonio but I wouldn’t go as far as killing him it is not even worth it.

“Cooled my friends, heated mine enemies”


Shakespeare has used two types of technique in one sentence firstly he has used an oxymoron which means he uses the two words with opposite meanings, in this quote the oxymoron’s are “Cooled” and “Heated.”

Secondly being a metaphor, because you can’t really cool or heat friends and enemies. It is like saying you have even turned people who are my friends against me, you have been spreading rumours about me.

“…What’s his reason? I am a Jew.”


This is a rhetorical question, which is a question but instead of someone else answering it you answer it yourself, Shakespeare has used this several times in this speech, it makes the speech more effective and emotive and it made me feel sorry for Shylock because he is so angry at Antonio and then Salerio has to just go and stir it up even more, it also makes us the audience think what he is going through and the next few lines are very strong and powerful. When I saw the second version of this specific speech he said it with anger and rage and you could tell that he was hurt inside because of his body language and the way he moved his hands you could tell that he was frustrated, the audience then wouldn’t have taken much notice of his feelings they would most probably be laughing.

“…Hath not a Jews hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?”


In this quote Shylock is trying to express his feelings he is saying although I am a Jew I still have a heart and some soft touches and I am just as sensitive just like everyone else, I am no different,

I am still made up of the same organs as you. These are rhetorical devices that Shakespeare has used to emphasize the point.

“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle

us do we not laugh? If you poison us

do we not die?”


The word “prick” I think resembles hurtful words because it then goes on to talk about bleeding this is symbolising pain and how upset he his. Shylock then compares this with having fun, which is when you laugh, and he compares the name calling to poison and how after a while when you have been teased and so much you just get sick of it and then you try to ignore it but what is worse you

sometimes wish that you weren’t alive. Now Shylock ask some rhetorical questions:

“If a Jew wrong a Christian what is his

humility? Revenge” (3:1:64-65)

“If a Christian wrong a Jew what should his

sufferance be by Christian example?

Why revenge” (3:1:65-67)

In this speech of Shylock, Shakespeare has used a lot of techniques this is all done to make more effective and the way he has sometimes used “If” and “You” which are second person pronouns that directly address to the audience or it could be that he is talking about a group of

Jews. I think that Shakespeare was talking to the audience because it makes them more involved and they would probably cheer, boo or hiss. The audience during Shakespeare’s time would have been a lot more different than to day’s audiences, the audience today are more considerate and sympathetic, where as Shakespeare’s audiences wouldn’t have been sympathetic towards Shylock instead they would laugh, snigger and giggle at him.

I think that this makes Shylock look like a victim and it makes us feel sorry for him, because the way Shakespeare has worded Shylocks speech, but then again some people might think that the last line spoils it and makes him look like a villain:

“The villainy you teach me I will execute.”


The reason why Shylock takes Antonio to court is because he wants his bond and he doesn’t want to break his promise. In the version of the court that we watched Shylock looked very plain and he was dressed scruffily he didn’t look that religious neither. He doesn’t look aggressive in fact he looks very humble.

The duke is being bias towards Shylock:

“Which is a pound of this poor

merchants flesh”


The first time Shylock speaks in the court scene is when he is very proud of himself and he seems as though he is a victim but he is a villain, looks can be very deceiving.

He says that he is going to stick to the bond and he will not change his mind. He could change his mind if he wanted to but he is just being stubborn. Antonio is still offending Shylock in court as well because he refers to him as a “Jew”

“His Jewish heart” (4:1:80)

Shylock says:

“The pound of flesh which I demand

of him…’tis mine and I will have it” (4:1:99-100)

When Shylock finishes saying this line he begins to sharpen his knife on his shoe, to get ready to cut Antonio’s flesh, and he look very sly and evil as he does this. Nerissa and Portia enter the courtroom looking like men; this is an example of dramatic irony this when the audience knows something that most or all of the characters don’t know. In this case the audience knows that Nerissa and Portia are dressed up as a men but the characters think that they are men not Nerissa and Portia. Gratiano calls Shylock:

“Inexecrable dog”


This is an another insult referring to his religion, but at this point I don’t particularly feel sorry for him because it is his own fault now, he could have broken the bond and ended it all but he wanted to get his own back on Antonio.

Portia refers to Christian faith and tells Shylock that if he is merciful to other people the will be merciful to him and so will God.

“The deeds of mercy” (4:1:201)

Later in the scene Portia reads out points from the bond and says that the piece of flesh has to be taken out nearest to the heart. This makes Shylock look like a villain and we feel more sympathetic for Antonio because he is probably going to die unless Shylock breaks the deal. Shylock has to take exactly a pound of flesh in one go no more and no less:

“nor cut thou less nor more

But just a pound of flesh”


Portia asks Shylock whether or not she is allowed to get a surgeon to look after Antonio’s wound after you have cut him. Shylock reads through the bond and says no it is not in the bond so you cannot have a surgeon.

“’tis not in the bond”


Portia is a really determined girl she is not going to give up until Antonio is free. She has got a question ready to argue every point. Later she argues the fact that in the bond it

doesn’t mention a word about blood, so Portia refers to this and says to Shylock that in the bond there is nothing about blood, so therefore you must take a pound of flesh out of Antonio without even a drop of blood.

“This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood ,

the words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh'”


After hearing this Shylock begins to change his mind because it is impossible to take out flesh without blood so he takes up the offer for 9000 Ducats and he will let Antonio live:

“I take this offer then; pay the bond thrice

and let the Christian go.”

(4:1:318 -319)

So now at least Antonio is off the hook but what is Shylocks punishment for breaking the bond:

“…for one half goods I am content the other half in use to render it upon his death”

This is what Antonio says so Antonio gets half of what Shylock already has and the other half will go to his daughter and on his funeral. He has to become a Christian everything that is under his possession shall go to Lancelot his son in law and his daughter:

“He presently become a Christian” (4:1:386)

“All…possessed unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter”


In the version of the play we watched when Shylock exits the stage permanently you hear a long wail and at this point I felt so sorry for Shylock because he has to change his religion, he has given everything that he has got away either to Antonio the government or his daughter even his house, he has got now where to go or live this is very upsetting and at the end of the play he is a victim.

I don’t think that Shakespeare is racist but the audience during his time were because they were not as understanding as us. They thought that, yeah, he is a different religion we won’t talk to him he seems a bit weird or he is not the same as us. But today we are willing to bring this issues out into the world an debate or discuss them even though some people are still racist but that will always will be there it is not going to go away in a day or two it depends on the person.

If I was a director of the play I would make Shylock look more religious and make him into a person who stands up for himself and who cares for people, he would be a very strong character but I would still include he issues of religion and racism because it makes the play more realistic and it shows people that every one was equal. As for Antonio I would make him a lot more caring but at the same time sly and evil but as well as that he would have to

face a big change in his lifestyle as well as Shylock.

In some parts of this play I thought that Shylock was a victim and in others I thought that he was a villain because of the bond but if that weren’t in it then he wouldn’t be a villain because Antonio would always be abusing him and picking on him. Antonio was always switching places with Shylock because sometimes when Shylock was a victim he would be a villain and when he was a villain Shylock would be a victim.

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The Merchant of Venice, Shylock: Victim or Villain. (2017, Oct 26). Retrieved from

The Merchant of Venice, Shylock: Victim or Villain
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