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Personality of Shakespeare's Shylock

Shylock: Victim or Villain

Is a villain someone who lends money to help others but then charges interest? Intending to receive a pound of human flesh resulting in certain death if a promise is broken, surely this is somebody who is viewed as a villain. The same man who has experienced prejudice and discrimination all his life only because of his religion, which would be unimaginable in modern day, has this man now turned into a victim? Shakespeare a play writer of the 16th century, so much more creative, sophisticated and knowledgeable then the Elizabethan audience he wrote this play for whom would have perceived Shylock as a Jew a villain, presents Shylock in a more complex way.

Jews were thought of by Christians as stubborn non-believers and were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the plague. Shylock was shown to be treated as all these things were true, yet he had a complexity about him as an audience today, against discrimination and accepting other religion and cultures, would feel pity, sympathy and put him towards the victim category.

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However trying to murder someone for revenge, this is clear villainy to anybody now or thousands of years ago.

Throughout the play we ask ourselves, is Shylock a villain or a victim? Shakespeare intends this as he gives Shylock emotive speeches about inequality, which contradicts Shylock as being a villain. Shylock as a character represents the Old Testament, Judaism, which is the belief of justice, retribution and following the law by the letter.

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Shakespeare gives a clear message about Justice against Antonio for all that he has done towards Shylock; he wants to get his revenge within the law hence the bond. Shylock talks about the Old Testament with Bassanio and Antonio in Act 1: Scene 3, “This Jacob from our Holy Abram.” Christianity, the New Testament, follows mercy and forgiveness. The Duke and Antonio both show mercy towards Shylock when he has shown none.

Shakespeare first introduces Shylock in Act1: Scene3. With no stage directions we have to decipher what a character is like only through what they say. “Three thousand Ducats-well.” His first line is about money. Shakespeare instantly gives us the impression that his only interest is money. This is also the case when he is at home with Jessica, his daughter and away from work. He explains how he dreamed of money bags yet does not acknowledge his daughter or show her any affection. However we later find out that money is not the only thing on his mind but his longing hatred for Antonio. Shylock hates him for he is a Christian but more because he lends money with no interest. “I hate him for he is a Christian. But more, for that low in simplicity he lends out money gratis.”

Antonio’s hate is reciprocated as he compares Shylock with the Devil and other animals like dogs. In the ring plot involving Portia and the caskets the first Prince is from Morocco, who was black, chose the gold casket but it was not the correct one. The complexion of a Devil in the eyes of An Elizabethan audience was black. Furthermore he has been associated with the devil by his own daughter and also Salerio and Salanio referred to him as the devil in Act 3: Scene 1. This hatred between them is introduced only to grow throughout the play. Shakespeare is very clever and drops hints about Shylock’s character and the actions he will take at the start of the play. Shylock mutters “Cursed be my tribe, if I ever forgive him.” He will show no mercy towards Antonio and he does not in the trial scene in Act 4: Scene 1.

It hard to decide whether Shylock is a victim or villain when he is first introduced as we learn about what he has had to put up with, being called a “misbeliever”, “cut throat dog” and others spitting on his beard for the reason that he is a Jew. We feel pity and sympathy for the things he has had to endure which means we cannot cling to a unique view of Shylock as a villain. He wants people to respect him and like him yet he cannot show any affection or respect towards his own daughter. He shows the same hatred back towards Antonio and if he catches him out, “If I catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” he will take his revenge. Coiling up all the hatred he has inherited has caused him to pass on the mistrust and hatred to others without being totally aware he is doing so.

Moments later he talks about being Antonio’s friend and charging him no interest. This sudden change of feeling and thought gives the audience a suspicion that he is planning something. We no longer think of him as a victim alone, he has shown us through his speech and actions that he has a villainies way about him. He hates him for he is a Christian just as the way Antonio hates Shylock for he is a Jew. Should we now feel sympathy for Antonio? We don’t and I think Shakespeare has decided to portray Shylock as more as a Victim in this scene is to capture the Elizabethan audience alone. A victim is the opposite of what they would have thought of him yet Shakespeare is trying to send a message. They would have though of him to be a stereotypical villain yet he is not Shakespeare has added complexity to his character.

A relationship between father and daughter is surely the most precious, the relationship between Shylock and Jessica. However we soon learn a totally different story about the hostile environment when they are together and the deeply buried hatred of Shylock from his only Daughter. Act 2: Scene 3 is where we first meet Jessica, we learn how unhappy she is willing to leave her home town and convert to Christian in order to be with Lorenzo and away from her father, “I have a Father, you a Daughter lost.” Jessica is also ashamed to be her Fathers child. Again we hear comparisons between Shylock and the Devil: ‘Our house is hell, and thou, a merry Devil’. Shylock has not noticed Jessica’s odd behaviour, too caught up with his own problems and obsession with money.

This shows us that although he may love Jessica he does not show it, he is not perceptive and can’t read his own daughter’s unhappiness. Act 2: Scene 3 when we first learn about her willingness to escape to Act 2: Scene 6 when she leaves with Lorenzo for Belmont. The inevitable happens but was this, the turning point for Shylock. Was his daughter running away the point were Shylock would go as far as attempting to kill a man for his revenge? At least before he had someone who looked up to him, loved him and looked after him, or so he thought. The shame would have overwhelmed him, his own flesh and blood turning into a Christian. I think he feared the most what others would say; they would mock him even more once this news had spread.

Shylock, his only child that he has bought up single-handed has fled, leaving him totally alone as he has already been widowed. He is evidently controlling over Jessica, “Do as I bid you, shut doors after you. Fast bind, fast find.” This controlling manner could also be attributed to the over protective nature of a loving single parent. Shakespeare has intended for us to think of Shylock as the victim and we sympathise with him but at the same time we sympathise with Jessica. In Act 2: Scene 5 we see Shylock and Jessica alone. At the start Shylock speaks about money indirectly once again, he is preoccupied and cares more about material things than his only daughter.

Shakespeare also portrays the relationship as an awkward one with Jessica not saying a great deal but when she does it is a lie: “His words were ‘Farewell Mistress’ and nothing else.” When, in fact, they had been talking about Lancelot. A Christian. She is reluctant at first: “Call you? What is you will?” but by the end she is letting her emotions and true feelings out: “Farewell and if my fortune be not crossed, I have a Father, you a daughter lost.” Shylock does not know his own daughter yet holds something over her, which makes her scared and a little ashamed to betray him. Through Jessica we see Shylock as an old, cruel man. Devil, hell, blood, ashamed and tediousness are all words that Jessica related to her father. In the 16th century daughters should have respected their fathers, even to this day they still seem a little extreme. These words don’t show respect, only hate.

In Act 2: Scene 8, Shakespeare has decided to play this scene so we hear the information second hand. Salerio and Salanio are gossiping about how they have seen Lorenzo and Jessica on a Gondola escaping. The two characters could play this scene in a laughing manner full of jokes. I think this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Doing it like this would mean as an audience we would also be influenced by the joking atmosphere and therefore feel less sympathetic towards Shylock. The Elizabethan audience would have loved this, as they would be in the shoes of Salerio and Salanio, mocking Shylock about his loss. We would feel dramatically more sympathetic if Shylock had spoken this speech by himself. However in this scene Shakespeare portrays Shylock as a villain in the way he talks about the flight of his Daughter.

A single parent loosing their only daughter should have been the worst possible outcome imaginable. Turmoil, distress, depression and anger should have been the things that were felt. They were but not for his daughter Jessica, but Shylocks money, jewels and wealth. Our sympathy grows as Shylock is portrayed as a victim but is stripped away when we learn he is more interested in his precious stones and jewels that have been taken: “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! … And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones. Stolen by my daughter. Justice! Find the girl!” these are definitely not the words of a warm hearted, doting father. Did he really love his daughter? Or did he only use her to take his aggression out on that he had built up from all the discrimination he had received.

He also loses our sympathy in Act 3: Scene 1 when he finds out that Jessica has run away with a Christian. He treats Jessica merely as another possession and when he learns of her flight he is more anxious of the whereabouts of his treasures and precious ducats:

“I would my daughter were dead atmy foot…and the ducats in her coffin.” These are not the words of a loving Father, it proves that Shylock would not mourn Jessica’s death or disappearance and the only thing he is interested in his wealth and status. This backs up the points said on Act 2: Scene 8 but this time we read and listen to Shylocks words from his mouth. Salerio and Salanio are here once again but this time mock him directly. They claim Jessica is a better person for converting and that they are not nearly related: “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers, than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods, than there is between red wine and rhenish.”

Shylock has been discriminated on and betrayed by others all his life but when his own daughter does the same, is this the point when he decides to take his revenge and relieve is anger? Shylock claims that Salerio and Salanio knew about his daughter going to flee, he blamed them but how can this be when he lives with his daughter yet did not notice or acknowledge her unhappiness and disconnection with him. Shakespeare is taking us on a roller coaster of emotions towards shylock. We feel sympathetic for him in this scene because he is being mocked for his loss but we then feel hostile towards him only minutes later when he proves he is no better than the Christians who mistreat him.

This is the scene when he decides to take a stand and follow through with his unimaginable bond. Well its unimaginable to everyone else but necessary for him, to him he is only giving back what he has taken in the past. “…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?… the villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches but why does he give it too Shylock, the villain of the play in the Elizabethan audience’s eyes? It gives him a different dimension and makes him seem more human. He stands up for himself and is not as in control or as noble as he was previously. He lets his emotions out many of the ideas used have been taken straight from the teachings of the Christian church. He is using the Christian’s own arguments against them. Shakespeare illustrates Shylock as being intelligent and is no longer a stereotypical villain; he has true, strong feelings that cannot be argued against by anyone.

In this scene we also learn the scale of Jessica’s betrayal when she gambled his ring that he had given to Leah when he was a Bachelor for a monkey: ” One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.” A pit in his stomach is what he would have felt yet it was quickly filled with the thought of Antonio’s misfortune and finally having a chance to take revenge against Antonio within the law. When talking to Tubal about Antonio’s sunken ships he uses a lot of repetition that could mean he has other things on his mind such as how and when he is going to take this inevitable revenge: “I thank God, I thank God…Is it true? Is it true?”

Act 3: Scene 1 is one of the most important in the play but also has the most unusual layout. The scene follows the layout of the whole play and also Shylocks emotions. It starts calm, Bassanio trying to take Portia’s hand in marriage, Shylock is doing his job and Salerio and Salanio are just gossiping. It then advances to irritation ad revenge. Shylock decides to take his revenge and in the ring plot Portia and her maid trick both their husbands. Furthermore it reveals all the relationships that Shylock is involved in, his relationship with his daughter, Christians and Tubal who is a Jew.

The last time we meet Shylock and the scene that the whole play has been moving towards, the Trial scene. Wanting to go as far as killing a man for revenge is what Shylock wants to do. He is the only being in the court room that believes what he is doing is what he deserves.. He wanted to get his revenge within the law, which is exactly what he is about to do. The duke of Venice greets Antonio and expresses pity for him, calling Shylock an inhuman monster who can summon neither pity nor mercy. The duke of Venice greets Antonio and expresses pity for him, calling Shylock an inhuman monster who can summon neither pity nor mercy.

This shows just how biased on others religion people were in the 16th century. The duke, a man of the law has already taken Antonio’s side. However at the same time we get a sense that the Duke is also frightened that Shylock might well go through with his promise inevitably killing Antonio. With words such as inhuman wretch, incapable of pity and stony adversary the Duke turns the audience against Shylock from the start. In addition he says: “Call the Jew into the room.” They are reminded that he is only a Jew not a human being worthy of credit.

Although Shylock is portrayed in a poor light by the other characters, Shakespeare give him intelligence in what he says.

“You have among you many a purchased slave

Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,

You use in abject and in slavish parts

Because you bought them. Shall I say to you

‘Let them be free, marry them to your heirs.

Why sweat they under burdens?. . .

You will answer

‘The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you.

The pound of flesh which I demand of him

Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it.” Shylock is not attacking the Venetian law just wants to be treated the same and to be allowed to share in it. This is not something a stereotypical villain would say and we can take this view and relate to it yet for us is does not excuse the killing of another human being. Again, in this passage, we find Shylock cleverly using Venice’s own laws to support his very own revenge. He abides by the law by the letter as his religion of Judaism teaches. Furthermore Shylock asks many questions making people think if they were in his shoes would they not do the same: “What wouds’t thou have a serpant sting thee twice?” every time he makes a point he justifies it and compares it to the Christians around him.

Throughout the play Shylock is reffered to as animals such as dogs, wolves and the Devil. This has been from Antonio because he has been higher in society and power than Shylock but not in this scene. Shylock compares Antonio cats, pigs and rats. Just as some Christians hate cats, pigs, and rats, Shylock hates Antonio. The tables have turned and he is so near to his revenge and Antonio is now so helpless under Shylocks new power. Just as some Christians own slaves with their power, Shylock owns a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shakespeare shows Shylock to be a new, triumphant man that can show no mercy towards Antonio. In the trial scene, we can see the conflict of idea of judgment of two religions. According to Judaism (Jews religion), justice means punishing the bad people. So, Shylock feels that he has suffered and he must get an eye for an eye. On the other hand Christianity believe in mercy and forgiveness.

Mercy is an apparent theme in this scene. It is first mentioned by the Duke, then by Portia who delivers another one of Shakespeare’s speeches.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…” Portia states first that the gift of forgiving the bond would benefit Shylock, and second, that it would take Shylock to an improved status. Lastly, Portia warns Shylock that his quest for justice and revenge without mercy may result badly and to his own diadvantage. Rather than a trial scene this scene is more like an interlectual argument between Judaism and Christianity. Once again the two religions are against each other. Shylock decides to unwisely ignore Portia’s speech. Shakespeare creates tension here as it is almost inevitable that he will be allowd to take Antonio’s life and Shylocks greed and blindness has alone portrayed him as a villain. Furthermore he is offered twice the amount in money but he replies: “If every ducat in six thousand duats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them, I would have my bond.” He explains clearly that he only wants his bond. All his life it has been about his money, stones and wealth. It had driven away his daughter and his job involving money was one of the reasons he had been mistreated all these years.

Shylock always put money first, if he had only done this once more he could have saved himself and his religion. Yet he was so intent on getting his revenge and this clouded his judgment. Shylock is still relishing his revenge just before the final moment: “O noble judge, O excellent young man.” He is thanking Portia but little does he know he is about to have his life and religion taken from under his feet. We feel resentful towards Shylock for the actions that he is going to take but when Portia reveals he can no longer do so we feel reeif. This does not last for long though as when we hear the punishments and consequences we cannot empathise.

In a society today it would be unimaginable for someone to be forced to be taken from their religion. in the 21st centruy we respect others and the religions that they follow, we judge a pearson by their actions. Not their religion. which is what Shylock experienced. As a modern audience we feel sickened when we think and watch this happening yet to the Elizabethan audience this would have only greatly added to the humour of the play. The tables have trned and now after Shylock showed no mercy he is now made to plead for it. as Christians they show it to him. We have to remember that this play is a comedy. A comedy in which the baddy, Shylock the Jew, is punished and the goody, Antonio the Christian, is saved. In this case Portia was the one who restored the humour for the Elizabethan audience by restoring justice against Shylock.

There are many themes in this play that link all characters. Bonds that exist between people, revenge, the sea and law versus justice. The bond of hatred that existed between Shylock and Antonio was a central element of the play. It leads to the actual bond of the pound of flesh being signed. They are bound together with Antonio’s life being in Shylock hands but then at the end Shylocks life in Antonio’s hands. Futhermore in the casket plot when Portia marrys Basanio she makes him vow never to give his ring away. This is a tight bond but is broken when Bassanio gives it away in appretiation, in the same way as when Antonio broke his promise in having 3000 ducats available to pay back Shylock back in the given time. Another is the sea. Had Antonio’s ships sailed to saftey Shylock would not have been able to demand revenge. The Elizabethan audience would have also enjoyed this familiar sea lore.

The link between the law and justice is one that came up often and is explored in depth by Shakespeare. Through the behavior of Shylock towards Antonio, Portia when punishing Shylock and showing no mercy after she asks Shylock to show it, Antonio when insisting Shylock converts to Christianity and the Duke letting events follow the law. We learn the law in Venice is not capable of providing fairness and justice. Finally, the theme of revenge, which appears in two plots in the play. Firstly when Portia and Nerissa trick their husbands then watch them suffer and try to redeem themselves. Secondly Shylock attempts to kill Antonio for all he has done, then Antonio shows mercy but then takes his revenge by making Shylock convert to Christianity. To Shylock this may have been a worse punishment, did he want to live an empty life with no meaning or direction, betraying his own God?

This play, Merchant of Venice, was written for an audience and Shakespeare creates suspense extremely well. He does this by switching between plots and locations at vital points in the play. He never spends too much time on one that we forget about the others. For example, in Act 1: Scene 2 we learn that Portia must marry whichever man chooses the right casket. At the end of the scene the arrival of Prince Morroco is announced, but we have to wait whilst Shylock and Antonio agree a bond before we are taken back to learn the outcome. Switching between plots this way is even used today particularly in soap operas. For audience advantage, Shakespeare makes them ahead of the characters, such as in the episode with the rings. On anther occasion the audience do not know something untill the characters themselves see it, as in the choice of the caskets. By varying these techniques, Shakespeare is able to develop dramatic tension and ultimately humour.

“The quality of mercy is not strained.” Or is it? Shylock found it impossible to show mercy but can we blame him? His only daughter deserted him then sold his preciouse ring. The very same one that he had given to the love of his life when he was a bachelor. She left with all his wealth, money and stones to be with a christian. Shylock had lost the closest person to him but also the most important thing to him, his money. He has been spat upon and called names such as “cut throat dog” all his life, mocked at and laughed at by every other. He should not then be expected to show mercy to the very same people who had caused him all this pain and misery. Afterall mercy was not an aspect of his religion, Judaism, but justice. However in the end his own religion is what let him down. If he had turned, only for a second, from his religion and showed a llittle mercy he would have been able to hold onto his religion and wealth rather than having it stolen away.

He was portrayed as a victim from the start and we sympathised with him when we hear the discrimmination he had to put up with. “… lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likness of a Jew.” To an Elizabethan audience Shylock would have only been viewed in the light of a villain and a Jew going through misery would have just added to the humour for the Christians watching. Shakespeare plays to this when he gives Shylock a menacing turn. He tells us how Shylock hates Antonio: “I hate him for he is a Christian.” But then, in contrast, Shakespeare shows us that in fact, Shylock wants to be Antonio’s friend: “I would be friends with you and have you love.” Has this been done on purpose? Or has Shakespeare done this too confuse the audience and portray him as a vitim with potential to become a villain?

There are no rules to whether Shylock is a victim or a villain, only interpretations. Shakespeare has given Shylock a complex character with mixed emotions that many producers and directors have interpreted for their purposes. In the film version, with Albaccino, Shylock was portrayed as a vulnerable victim who was easily sympathised with. With such an intelligant, crafty play writer who included deeper meanings, no-one will ever truly know if Shakespeare intended Shylock to be a victim or a villian. Maybe this was his intention, you decide whether you sympathise with him because all he has been through or you may think he is a man that has crossed a line with bad intentions.

People to this day have acted because of the way they have been treated or how they have been bought up. Remember, Is a villain someone who lends money to help others but then charges interest? Intending to receive a pound of human flesh resulting in certain death if a promise is broken, surely this is somebody who is viewed as a villain. The same man who has experienced prejudice and discrimination all his life only because of his religion, which would be unimaginable in modern day, has this man now turned into a victim? Shakespeare fills your mind with suspicions, theories and questions but only your emotions and thoughts can decide whether Shylock was a victim or a villain. Or maybe he was neither.

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Personality of Shakespeare's Shylock. (2017, Nov 09). Retrieved from

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