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The Tragedy of Shylock Essay

I had not read the _Merchant of Venice_ before this class. All of my familiarity with the play was based on hearsay, and for some reason I got the idea in my heads that it was a tragedy. I thought that Shylock_did_ receive a pound of flesh from Antonio, but that it was just skin removed from his back. This gruesome image was what I was waiting for during my entire reading of the play. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Also, I found out ‘Comedy’ means ‘Happy Ending.’ And that ‘Happy Ending’ means ‘No One Gets Their Skin Cut off for Defaulting on a Loan.’

But I found the work to be not as comedic and happy as that ending implies. This is a happy ending if you identify and sympathize with those characters that triumph in the end. But reading this play in this day and age, Shylock becomes a much more sympathetic character. We look at Shylock through our knowledge of injustice perpetrated against Jews for thousands of years. We know and love flesh and bone humane Jews in our everyday life, and if not that, at least we all enjoyed _Seinfeld._ Shylock becomes not a depository for our hatred as previous generations could interpret him, but as a human being who has been wronged. It allows me to look at _The Merchant of Venice_ not only as a Comedy of the Merchant, but as the Tragedy of Shylock.

Shakespeare’s the _Merchant of Venice_ has endured for this long because of the fascinating character of Shylock. His contradictory presence of both human and devil, the familiar and the strange is what continues to draw audiences to this work. Leslie Fiedler devotes an entire chapter of his book _The Stranger in Shakespeare_ to this interesting character, a chapter entitled _The Jew as Stranger._ This criticism offers a wealth of information, some of it useful and insightful, some of it less so. But I shall use Fiedler’s work as a guide to deconstructing the _Merchant of Venice_.

If Shylock is the victim, we must enumerate the instances where he is wronged. Upon his first entrance into the action of the play, he has already been called by Antonio a “misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine, and all for use of that which is [his] own” (I.iii.108-110). Antonio seems to have an extended history of insulting and dehumanizing Shylock, and these actions of Antonio’s seem cruel and unprovoked. He has insulted and spat upon Shylock, seemingly for practicing a business that provides sustenance for him and his family, and breaks no law of Venice. And does Antonio offer any defense to these accusations, or feel any remorse if he had, in truth, acted this way?

Does he apologize to shylock now that he requires service from him? Not at all. He replies “I am as like to call thee again, to spurn thee too” (I.iii.127-128). Antonio feels completely justified in his treatment of Shylock, and show no signs of changing this disposition in the near future. Not even when necessity calls for him to patronize Shylock’s previously scorned services does Antonio offer to patch things up with the Jew. He continues obdurately in is contempt. In this, the first appearance of Shylock, Shakespeare has already humanized more than demonized him. He has taken the opportunity to make this character not as much of clownish caricature as a true fleshed out relatable human being.

He is also allowed to further humanize himself in at least one additional speech. He remarks as follows:

“He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?… If you prick us, do we not bleed?… And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

He calls into light the similarities between the Christians and the Jews, emphasizing his own humanity throughout all his speech. He once more calls to light the numerous wrongs he has endured, thus explaining his actions. But most eloquently he reminds us all of the humanity inside, that this is not some vile monster, but a man driven to the edge as any man, Christian or Jew, would.

This treatment of Shylock, even allowing for there to be cause for a sympathetic reading of Shylock, is testament to Shakespeare’s unwillingness to succumb to using stereotypes and caricatures. According to Fiedler, he was under a tremendous amount of pressure to create a Jewish scapegoat for the stage for the community to vent its frustrations over a court scandal involving a Jewish physician. The fact that he has no other Jewish characters in all of his plays raises a red flag to say that he did not want to create a monster out of Shylock, but by necessity, created half of one. Through his writing he gave the people what they wanted, an easy villain to hate, but also a way to look at this character without utter contempt. Shakespeare found a way to please his audience and also to leave room for a more charitable interpretation of Shylock.

If Shylock is to the hero, then, consequently, another character must be the villain. Because of the way the characters contrast with actual heroes, particularly when they cite Jason and the Argonauts and Troilus and Cressida, it is easy to see these ‘heroes’ as farcical play-acting villains. The non obstacles they must overcome for love and money contrast sharply with the epic tales they themselves reference. They have no dragons to defeat or long journeys to embark upon for their love. They do not build a ship and gather powerful warriors, but rather Bassanio hits up his friend for some cash to look presentable, and ropes another friend in to be his wingman for his lady’s maid. These are not the actions of heroes.

Almost any other major character in this play would qualify, but the chief Villain to Shylock’s Hero is without a doubt Portia. She is the biggest hero in the comedy, but her heroics can easily be reduced to villainy, because the flaws of her character are numerous. Her first flaw is her ability to insult and judge with quite some ease. All of her previous suitors that she hoped against hope would not choose caskets correctly are insulted in some way shape or form. She calls the Frenchman a poseur, the German a drunk, the Scotsman a coward and so on. She shows no restraint in letting these insults fly at any foreigner, fitting that she should choose the Native Bassanio for her suitor. She reserves a special brand of racism and lies for the Moor, the Prince of Morocco. Portia says she would want nothing to do with anyone of his complexion, even “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me” (I.ii.124-126).

His personality and kind heart would matter nothing to her if his complexion does not suit her, and this is before even meeting him! And when she does, her disposition does not improve much. Morocco makes an apology for his complexion as his introduction to Portia, and she replies that he is “as fair as any comer I have looked on yet for my affection” (II.i.20-22). But as we, the audience, know, she didn’t think too fondly of the other suitors she encounters. So she politely lies to this man she has judged before encountering. And once he chooses incorrectly, she remarks “a gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.78-79). She was putting on an act for the Moor while he was in her presence, not only hating irrationally but also lying through her teeth to him. This character is a perfect villain full of racial prejudice to be a foil to Shylock.

Speaking of lying through her teeth, that is what Portia is almost always doing. Her biggest ‘heroic’ moment in the entire play is achieved under completely false pretenses. First of all, she is not a man, and most certainly not a doctor of laws. Yet she plays one for the court, defrauding Shylock of his bond, and what’s more, his livelihood. She lies to her husband Bassanio, playing a trick on her supposedly beloved husband for no other reason than to test his fidelity. Of course, through her ruse she is testing Bassanio’s fidelity to his proxy father Antonio against his fidelity to his bride. There is no point to this test other than to put the soul of Bassanio on trial.

I find it despicable and unnecessary to do such a thing to the man she allegedly loves. She uses this to sabotage relationships and threaten her husband. She performs before the court a long speech about mercy, probably forgetting the way she has created a joke of the court through her impersonations but also is preaching ‘mercy’ while using her advantage to exact ruthless revenge upon Shylock. I am aghast at these actions and can see no motivation or reason behind them, and this is what I find villainous about her. Her self-serving ways are as odious to me as any of Shylock’s transgressions and even worse in their unmotivated nature.

But with any Tragedy, we must have a tragic flaw and a tragic fall. Shylock is a wealthy money-lender with a daughter and a fine estate. He is undone in the end for his lack of mercy, and strict adherence to the law he himself had laid out. His insistence on maintaining his bond despite offers of many times the original loans worth shows the depth of his hatred for Antonio, and this lack of mercy is what causes the problem in the play. This reminds me of an episode of the TV show _Arrested Development_, wherein Gangie, remarks “They turn you into a monster, and then they call you one.” This puts in perfect terms the injustice enacted upon Shylock. He has been driven to the brink by the treatment he has received, but then he struck down again for the way the other characters have made him. His insistence on strict interpretation is turned back around on him, and other laws, dubious in nature, provide his final undoing.

Through her elaborate ruse Portia is allowed to condemn Shylock to poverty and the loss of all that is his. But that is not even the worst of the offenses, as Shylock is compelled to sacrifice his religion. He is violated in the most thorough way, robbing him of his daughter, his religion, his identity, his servant, his possessions, and his profession. This utter destruction of his life is a terrible blow, and made all the more humiliating by the loss of his religion. This is treated as a happy occasion, not as the terrible inhumane procedure it would be considered nowadays. This ending is as harsh a fate as can be usually permitted in a comedy. It is sad what happens to Shylock, especially considering the way we now relate to him.

So in the end of the play, Shylock is condemned for the way the other characters have made him through their scorn, ridicule, and intolerance. They preach mercy while using falsehoods and the law to exact revenge upon him. He was robbed of everything he had by people who created him, and was tragically reduced to nothing. It is not all that difficult to realize the _Merchant of Venice_ as ultimately the Tragedy of Shylock.


Fiedler, Leslie. The Stranger in Shakespeare. 1972, Stein and Day Publishing. New York.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 1598, London.

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