‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a play written by William Shakespeare between 1594-1597, it is said to be his most suspenseful comedy. It’s rumoured that sources of inspiration for this play are a story called ‘The Simpleton by Giovanni Fiorentino and Christopher Marlowe’s play, ‘The Jew of Malta’ in 1589. Although, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written during Elizabeth Is reign as Queen, there is no evidence it was performed until the reign of James I, when it was performed in 1604 and 1605. The play shows that, ‘Life and love can only by risking their loss.’
The main features of the plot are as follows: The Bond, Shylock wanting a pound of Antonio’s flesh; The Caskets, Bassanio winning his love, Portia; The Elopement, Jessica becoming Christian, as she is in love with Lorenzo; The Rings, A test of Bassanio and Gratiano’s love.
The storyline which I will be following for this essay is The Bond. I’ve chosen this aspect, because it features Shylock, a wizened, old, Jewish, money lender who is persecuted for his faith. I hope to discover whether Shylock is a Victim or a Villain.
The bond is a contract between Antonio and Shylock stating that if Antonio does not return 3,000 ducats, which he has borrowed, to Shylock in three months as agreed then, ‘Let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of [Antonio’s] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth [Shylock].’ These terms are set out by Shylock. Antonio agrees because he is over confident, saying ‘There can be no dismay; my ships come home a month before the day’.
Antonio is a wealthy business man, Shylock says he hates him because, ‘He lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance here.’ Shylock makes his money by charging interest. People like Antonio stop him from making money. But, there is the wider issue of Christians vs. Jews, Christians were not allowed to lend out money and charge interest but the Jews were.
Shylock is an old, Jewish, money lender/usurer. He is very puritanical and despises masked balls and Christians alike,
‘Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum and the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife, clamber not you up to the casements then nor thrust your head into the public street to gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces; but stop my houses ears – I mean my casements – let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house.’
Bassanio is Antonio’s best friend; he is in love with Portia, whom he wishes to marry. He also detests Shylock, ‘This is no answer, thou unfeeling man, to excuse the current of thy cruelty.’
Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock, on behalf of Bassanio, who hopes to woo his love, Portia. He hopes to earn her hand in marriage by correctly guessing which casket gives her fathers acceptance; gold, silver or lead.
Antonio insists on borrowing this large sum of money from Shylock for Bassanio because he doesn’t see that he could lose out. His ships are due back both before three months are through and the forfeit is carried out.
Shylock, the money lender, makes this bond and gives Antonio three months to repay the 3,000 ducats that he has borrowed. If not repaid within this period, he will forfeit a pound of his own flesh. The arrangement appears amicable, because he doesn’t charge any interest. However, Shylock has ulterior motives for creating the bond. He hates Antonio because as Shylock says to him, ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine.’
To fuel Shylock’s determination and achieve the outcome of his bond, Jessica, his daughter, runs away and steals his money. She does this to become a Christian, as she is in love with Lorenzo, ‘Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed, I have a father, you a daughter, lost.’
However, the outcome of the trial is not in his Shylock’s favour. He is offered six thousand ducats, twice that which he has lent, but he refuses this offer in favour of his bond, ‘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.’ Portia, disguised as ‘Doctor Balthazar’, reveals,
‘If it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive shall seize one half his goods, the other half comes to the privy coffer of the state, and the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the Duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.’
Throughout history, Jews have been criticised and ridiculed. The earliest Jews to settle in England came over with the Norman’s in 1060’s. In 1189 a fledgling community fell victim to the first of London’s anti-Semitic pogroms (organised persecution and massacre, especially of Jews), Thirty Jews were killed. In 1190, 150 were killed for the same reason. In 1257, new laws passed based on Jews. They were no longer allowed to be money lenders, those over 12 years of age faced a tax and all Jews had to wear badges so that they could be identified as a Jew. By 1290, the Jew’s faced expulsion from England and gradually returned over the next 400 years. In 1594 however, the Jew’s were hit with a fresh wave of anti-Semitism. A Jewish doctor from Portugal, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, was charged with attempted murder of his patient (via poison). Unfortunately for him, she was Queen Elizabeth I and as a consequence, he was hung drawn and quartered.
Evidence that Shylock is a villain is compiled below:
He is a miserly money lender who charges high interest rates to his customers. Shylock delights in business opportunities and repeats the amount of money that Antonio is borrowing, ‘Three thousand ducats … by near guess of my memory I cannot instantly raise up the gross of full three thousand ducats.’
Shylock also revels in the concept of revenge, especially on Antonio. He achieves this via taking a pound of flesh, even though it would be of no use or profit to him, ‘A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man, is not so estimable, profitable neither, as flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.’
Shylock is clearly very bloodthirsty; he is armed and ready at the trial, to pulverise Antonio and have his pound of flesh, ‘Thou makst thy knife keen. But no metal can, no, not the hangman’s axe, bear half the keenness of thy sharp envy.’
Shylock is a very old man who was brought up in a very puritanical community. We see evidence of this, as he talks to Jessica about the masked ball that Bassanio and his friends are holding, ‘What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica, lock up my doors… let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house.’
He clearly shows more concern for the whereabouts of his money, than his own daughter, as Salanio tells us in Act 2, Scene 3,
‘I never heard a passion so confused, so strange, outrageous, and so variable as the dog Jew did utter in the streets: ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!’
Also, he is evidently the stock Jewish character of the Elizabethan era; anti-Semitism was rife in Shakespeare’s London. Audiences, primed to view Shylock as a natural-born villain, would have been surprised to find any of his speeches particularly moving.
Evidence that Shylock might be considered a victim, is demonstrated below:
Shylock is a victim of the society around him, as a Jew in the Elizabethan times, the Christians hate him, Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and the Duke. We see this in Act 4, Scene 1, as the Duke refers to Shylock indirectly as ‘The Jew’, ‘Go one and call the Jew into the court.’
Shylock is a religious, clean-living family man who merely wants to conduct his business. As Shylock is a Jew, his main means of business and income to support both his daughter, Jessica, and himself is money usury, lending out money at high interest rates, which is how the bond is initially created.
We also see that Shylock is not a villain but was driven to revenge on Antonio because of petty discrimination and persecution. His determination was spurred on by the loss of his only family, daughter Jessica.