In this essay I will discuss whether or not I believe Shylock’s words in Act IV to be a true reflection of his feelings. He is one of the main, if not the main character in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. He is a Jew, and loathed by most of the other characters in the play. Shakespeare portrayed him as the stereotypical Jew. He has a hatred of Christians and lends money with interest with the sole purpose of making profit. He lives in Venice with his daughter Jessica. There is no mention of a wife, but we later learn that she has died a few years back.
Bassanio, a Christian needs money to fund a journey overseas to Belmont where he attempts to win beautiful Portia’s hand in marriage. He asks his friend Antonio for a loan but all his wealth is tied up in ships. Together they go to Shylock for money. He agrees to lend them three thousand ducats, to be paid in three months time when Antonio’s ships come in.
If they fail to pay back the money then Shylock will be eligible to one pound of Antonio’s flesh, cut nearest to his heart. When, after the three months are up, Antonio cannot pay back the loan, Shylock demands his forfeiture. Antonio takes the matter to the Venetian court. The judge allows Shylock to have what is lawfully his and cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh but he must not ‘shed one drop of Christian blood’. Shylock has been beaten by his own legal bond.
By the laws of Venice, if a person ‘seeks the life of an citizen’ then the citizen gets one half of the conspirator’s wealth while the other half goes to the state. Therefore Antonio is given one half of Shylock’s wealth. Antonio gives his half back to Shylock but makes him commit to two things. ‘Upon his death’ he must give half of his wealth to Lorenzo, Jessica’s husband. He must also become a Christian. This shows great mercy on Antonio’s part, for Shylock’s conversion to Christianity grants him a place in heaven.
This shows Antonio’s soft side, as he hates Shylock with the same passion as Shylock hates him. But does Antonio intend to show mercy? Antonio knows that being Jewish is very important to Shylock and his loathing of Christians is well documented. Is this Antonio’s way of getting revenge on Shylock? They are two very different people. Shylock does not take any interest in food, music or love and the Christians find this strange. Throughout the play Shylock is only called directly by his name five times. All the other times he is mostly called Jew.
‘Art thou contented Jew?’
‘We all expect a gentle answer Jew.’
This makes him stand out as an alien amongst all the Christians. The judge asks Shylock if he has anything to say. He answers with the words ‘I am content’. At the end of the play Shylock has nothing left. He has lost his daughter, his wealth, his wife’s ring, his religion and his home. But thanks to Antonio his soul has been saved.
Shylock is a very strong character, although misunderstood. His speeches are powerful. He is a very cunning man. When Antonio and Bassanio approach him for the loan he reveals to the audience how much and why he hates Antonio.
‘I hate him for he is a Christian.
But more, for that in low simplicity
he lends out money gratis, and brings down
the rate of usance here with us in Venice.’
He then goes on to tell Antonio about all the times he has ‘rated’ him in the Rialto, called him names and spat upon him and how he has ‘borne it with a patient shrug’. But then he offers his friendship to Antonio along with the bond. We know that he has no desire whatsoever for Antonio’s friendship. He is also very cunning when it comes to the terms of the bond. He plays down the cutting of Antonio’s flesh to be nothing more than a little joke, when in reality it is a clever way to get revenge on Antonio and to possibly kill him.
Many people have different opinions of him. Some see him as an evil villain while others see him as a misunderstood person who only wants what is rightfully his. Anti-Semitism had been around in Britain ever since the first Jews arrived. Stories were told of Jews kidnapping babies, drinking blood in sacrificial rituals and forcing adult circumcisions. In 1591 a play was written portraying the main character, a Jew, as being a very evil murderer who killed his own daughter along with a convent of nuns.
Thus, when Shakespeare first wrote The Merchant of Venice, the majority saw Shylock as the ‘baddie’ of the play. Another reason why Christians hated Jews was because they believed them to be the reason for Christ’s death. It is clear though that Shakespeare himself was not entirely Anti-Semitic as he shows Shylock to have feelings and emotions in some sympathetic scenes. Shylock’s speech in Act III, Scene I reveals his feelings towards peoples’ attitude towards him and the fact that just because he is a Jew, he is no different in any other bodily way from the Christians. The only difference between the two is their religion and beliefs.
‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses,
affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the
same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same
means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle
us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if
you wrong us shall we not revenge?’
Even so, the picture we get of Shylock in the trial scene repeatedly sharpening his knife would bring back the horrific tales to people’s minds.
In some scenes Shylock comes across as a very shallow character. After he discovers Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo and some of his wealth, he seems to be more worried about his money and jewels than Jessica’s disappearance.
ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels. I would
my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear.’
But in Act III, Scene I, when he is discussing with Tubal, a fellow Jew, what he has learned of Jessica’s elopement, a softer more human side of him is shown. Tubal reveals that Jessica took a ring from Shylock that his late wife gave to him, and sold it for a monkey. Shylock is distraught as the ring had a lot of sentimental value. This is a contrast between Shylock’s usual love of value in terms of profit and the more emotional, sentimental meaning of value.
But, even though Shylock gets the sympathy of the audience in some cases, he usually follows with a cold-hearted act that quickly dissolves all sympathy. For instance, after he learns of Jessica’s sale of the ring he turns his attentions to Antonio and his sunken ships. He immediently cheers up at the thought of having a pound of Antonio’s flesh and triumphing over the Christians.
Shylock remains a consistently powerful character throughout the play. His speeches are long and effective and are spoken with passion. But during the trial scene, after Antonio makes him change his religion, he becomes quiet and remorseful. He leaves immediently, telling the court that he is ill and to send the deed after him.
‘I pray you give me leave to go from hence,
I am not well. Send the deed after me,
and I will sign it.’
He has been beaten and he is no longer in charge. He is embarrassed and feels sorry for himself.
After taking all the above into account, I come to the conclusion that Shylock is nowhere near being “content”. After fighting hard and zealously for the right to the pound of flesh over the duration of the play, he would not be wiling to give it all up just like that. Shylock knows that he has been beaten by his own bond and therefore does not want to be humiliated any more by further fighting on his behalf for the pound of flesh.