The way in which Shylock is played on stage has changed greatly since the play was first performed, when he was made out to be a villain and a clown. This altered in the nineteenth century when Shylock was portrayed as an intelligent man who had been victimised. Undoubtedly, Shakespeare did not write Shylock as a simple, one- sided part. To a modern audience, Shylock is sometimes a villain and sometimes a victim. However, in Shakespearian times, they would have had the much simpler view that Shylock was in the wrong and they (The Christians) were right.
In Shakespearian England anti- Semitism was rife. Jews were widely regarded as evil and the entire community had been expelled from England in 1290. Jews were persecuted worldwide and forced to live their lives in ghettos.
Audiences in the Elizabethan era who were predominately Christians would have delighted in Shylock’s defeat, where as today’s society is multicultural and diverse, hence we may have an entirely different view on this topic.
Throughout the play we hear evidence that would justify Shylock’s wickedness towards Christians, ‘you call me misbeliever, cut- throat dog’. Anyone who is called these names, ‘spat upon’ and ‘spurned’ is not going to behave in a polite way towards the source of rudeness. Depicted as a villain to many readers, Shylock shows his true feelings towards Antonio, aside to the audience, ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’. As well as proving his hatred of Christians, this does nothing for the sympathy towards him from the audience; A Shakespearian audience would immediately dislike Shylock.
He also states that Antonio ‘lends out money gratis’.
This shows that Shylock’s reasons for hating Antonio are not only because he is a Christian and the way he treats Shylock and fellow Jews, but also the fact that he lends money to people without charging interest, hence which adversely affects Shylock’s livelihood. This open display of greed and hatred makes Shylock even more an unsympathetic character. Furthermore, Shylocks hatred for Antonio can build up the dislike of himself to Christians, as they see Antonio as a fellow being. Shylock is portrayed as narrow- minded, a characteristic associated with archetypical villains. Shylock displays elements of belligerence in his refusal to forgive Christians. When Bassanio invites Shylock to dinner, he refuses at first, ‘I will not eat with you, nor drink with you’. This shows his stubborn belief in ‘the prodigal Christian’ and also the strong divide between religions.
Eventually he goes ‘in hate’. During the play, we learn of Shylock’s intent in taking Antonio’s life, ‘if I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat that ancient grudge I bear him’. This adds to the audience’s dislike of him as well as attaining a reverence of a true villain, as the audience are under the belief that Shylock will go to great lengths to take Antonio’s life. Shylock is uncaring and rough as a father towards his only daughter. When we first witness an interaction between them, Shylock orders her about as if she were a servant, ‘hear you me, Jessica, lock up my doors’ and mentions nothing about her well- being, only the well- being of the house, ‘let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house’.
These comments made by Shylock show how his relationship with his daughter is very weak, harsh and strict. The audience then shows sympathy for Jessica and in turn have an aversion to Shylock. Moreover, Shylock never notices his daughter’s strange behaviour on the night she is due to elope- showing that Shylock is not a very attentive father. Perhaps he is too preoccupied with generating yet more wealth to concern himself with his only daughter. This view of him as self- serving and avaricious is compounded by his reaction to Jessica running away with a Christian. He is outraged that she has left and has stolen some of his money, ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot’. It seems like he cares more for the money than Jessica, because we hear, ‘oh my ducats’ more than ‘my daughter’. Again Shylock portrays himself in an unsympathetic way, as vindictive and villainous.
He wishes for the death of his own daughter as the price for her treachery and even goes as far as to wish ‘she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin’. This shows Shylock to be a cold, heartless man, devoid of parental feeling, who is focused purely on revenge and money. Another example of Shylock’s villainy is in the courtroom. Here, he has the chance to show that he is far superior to the Christians. If Shylock were to show mercy to Antonio, then he would come out of the proceedings very well indeed. However, he presses on ruthlessly with his attempt to kill Antonio which, when he fails turns the audience against him. He is described, even by the Duke as ‘a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch’. As various people beg him to show mercy he only replies coldly, ‘I will have my bond’.
Even when Bassanio offers him six times the original fee, he still refuses, ‘I would not draw them, I would have my bond’. All this installs hatred of him in the courtroom, as he sits sharpening his knife stating that ‘there is no power in the tongue of man to alter me’. Conversely, Shylock could be seen as the victim in this play. It could be argued that he has suffered a lot of racial abuse, maybe more often than an average Jew in the Venetian society. Shylock has been called names such as ‘evil soul’ and ‘devil incarnation’, which portrays dislike towards him, probably due to his money lending occupation. However is it right to torment some just because they are of a different religion? Shylock is preyed upon by many Christians, but it seems by Antonio, more than any. Indeed Antonio seems to be the source of much of Shylocks’ abuse. He has ‘disgraced me, laughed at my losses, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains and heated mine enemies’ and his reason, ‘I am a Jew’.
Antonio also shows that he has no remorse for what he has said and done to Shylock, he openly states he would ‘call thee so again, spit on thee again… ‘. Here we can see how Shylock can have extra vengeance for Antonio and how no-one could blame him for being angry at this deliberate racism. When they first meet in the play, Shylock says, ‘many a time and oft in the Rialto you have rated me’. This shows how readily Shylock accepts being abused and installs our sympathy in him. It also displays how much Shylock has endured from haters. During the play it becomes obvious that the mistreatment of Shylock comes from Christians, therefore it is understandable that he has a certain loathing for them.
In Venice, ‘if a Jew wrong a Christian’ the Christian will seek revenge. So it seems only fair that ‘if a Christian wrong a Jew’, then the Jew will take lead and, ‘by Christian example’ seek revenge too. Shylock also states that, ‘the villainy you teach me I will execute’. This implies that Shylock is not the villain, but only acting as he is treated himself. In addition Antonio lends money to people with no added interest. This limits Shylock’s business as people would rather go to Antonio than Shylock. This can affect the livelihood of Shylock and make us feel sorry for him. Another aspect of how Shylock is victimised is the fact that Antonio accepted the offer with a lawyer present and therefore understood the consequences in place if he could not repay the bond. He should have never signed it if he was not prepared to accept the forfeit. Antonio’s stubbornness caused himself to be in such a position.
He wanted to gain the upper hand over Shylock when his ships return with ‘thrice three times the value of this bond’. However when all did not go to plan, Antonio was stuck in a very difficult position. By law Shylock had the power to fulfil the bond and kill Antonio. In Shylock’s attempts to retrieve his debt by going to court, he is humiliated even more. He endures many more anti- Semitic comments; ‘devil… here he comes in the likeness of a Jew’. Here it shows his dehumanisation even in court where there is to be justice. They call an outcast of society and criminals who have committed unthinkable acts, devils. Subsequently, this shows that Shylock walked into a courtroom full of biased Christians ready to tear him apart, because of his religion. This gives us the idea that they may not know Shylock, but because of his religion they are, at first glance, classing him an outcast.
The Christians also seek to torment Shylock even when he is most vulnerable, such as when Jessica elopes with Lorenzo. Christians invite Shylock out to dinner the night his daughter is stolen from him, so this betrays his trust in them even further. When he speaks to Salerio he mocks him about the disappearance of his daughter, ‘that’s certain: I, for my part, knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal’. This proves how much Shylock is mocked in his life, even after the people closest to him have deserted him. He was a protective father and just wants the best for Jessica. When the carnival is going on outside he wants to keep Jessica away from the Christians, ‘clamber not you up to the casements then, nor thrust your head into the public street’. He quite rightly says this considering the way he is treated by Christians.
He loves his daughter and does not want her to get hurt. In addition, the fact that Jessica stole some of his money and valuable Jews makes us feel sorry for Shylock even more. All his life he has worked hard to earn his money and it has been snatched away from him. We also learn that Jessica has stolen and then given away the ring of Shylock’s wife for a monkey. Shylock cries out and says, ‘I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys’. This shows how mush Jessica has hurt him and we are deeply sympathetic. Shylock is nai?? ve in the way that he believes he can take on the Christians when the foundation of Venetian law is designed to serve the best interests of the Christians. Shylock’s punishment is harsh- he has to give up all of his wealth to his enemies and ‘become a Christian’, he is left with nothing. Here we see Shylock, an utterly broken man and our heart goes out to him.
Then, at the end of the play, in the last act, we learn that everyone is happy, everyone apart from Shylock, who does not feature. This leaves us speculating what happened to him and we feel for him, wondering what he is doing while everyone else is happy and peaceful. Stereotypically, it seems that the villain is punished and the treat is over. However, although Shylock pursues his revenge fervently, he still has the audience’s sympathy because of the unfair and callous punishment he receives. It strikes a modern day audience as unjust that the severity of his punishment reflects not his crime, but his race.
He is a victim of the Christian’s intolerance of other races and ideas. In all, I believe that Shylock is merely a victim in this story. He has the right to have vengeance for all he has suffered and to act as the Christians act towards him. He has been humiliated in a racist society where the Christians have no conscience in dehumanising and destroying a Jew. Furthermore, his only daughter runs away with one of his persecutors. She steals his money and the ring his wife gave him. It seems justified that he should feel betrayed and hurt. Shylock only demanded a bond that Antonio had accepted to. It could be argued that if Antonio was not willing to die, then why did he consent to Shylock’s contract in the first place.
We can only guess at how Shakespeare intended Shylock to be played. He becomes throughout the play, an increasingly lone figure and is portrayed by Shakespeare to be in some ways very ‘human’. Shakespeare could have decided to show Shylock completely defeated at the end of the play, not even to have his religion to hold on to, which would indicate that he was intended to be a villain. On the other hand, I think Shylock was intended to be a victim and was created to challenge the pre- conceptions and ideologies of the Elizabethan era. Also I think that he is not a villain because he inspires too much empathy in an audience. Having said all this, I believe that it is no useful for us to simply categorise Shylock as either victim or villain. Through Shylock, Shakespeare explores the way in which the line between the oppressed and the oppressor can become vague.