In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock is shown to be an evil character, who tries to kill Antonio and is stopped by the good Antonio. Shakespeare probably made the play for a 16th Century, prejudicial and anti-Semitic audience, so a more modern audience would sympathize with some of Shylock’s actions.
Shylock is a Jewish Puritan, which makes him very religious, and an extremist. We know this is the because in the play Shylock tells Jessica to close his doors after him so the music outside doesn’t penetrate his house,
“What, are there masques? Hear you me Jessica-Order now
Lock up my doors.”
Shylock is in the business of usury, which is charging interest on money lent, from the very start. It is not unusual that mainly Jews were into money lending because in the Middle Ages Jews were expelled from all other trades, so they had no choice but to go into usury.
Antonio is a Christian who is the enemy of Shylock, because he insults him in public and charges fair interest. Fair interest was charging interest when the period of borrowing was over and the sum hadn’t been paid back.
” I hate him for he is a Christian
But more in low simplicity,
He lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usuance.”
A modern audience would sympathize with Shylock’s actions of trying to seek revenge upon Antonio, under the pretence of law because Antonio has humiliated him, is ruining his business, stopping his way of earning a living and also due to the fact that Jews were being persecuted in that period.
Even when Shylock has lent the money Antonio is still insulting him, but throughout the play we find that Shylock is referred to as “the Jew”, as if Jews were like beasts and I think I can go as far as to say that he put in the same context as the devil throughout the play. Such quotes in (4.1) as,
” Antonio. I pray you think you question with the Jew.”
In that quote you could almost replace the word ‘Jew’ with ‘devil’ and Antonio talks about Shylock as if it was judgment day and no one could alter Antonio’s fate.
This obviously would be very appealing towards a prejudicial Elizabethan audience, who are surrounded by rumours of Jews eating little children and charging families with high extortion rates of usury, which was all built through the years.
Shakespeare shows Shylock loves his money more than his daughter and he even goes as far as wanting her dead, as long as he had his jewels.
” I would have my daughter dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear!”
A modern audience would again feel sorry for him because he has lost his daughter to Christianity and he also has Tubal giving him bad news about how his daughter spent his money, which is part of his Jewish life and his identity, but they would definitely question their sympathy for Shylock after he wishes his daughter dead at his feet.
I think it is Shylock’s attitudes towards Antonio, his temper and his greed for money, which makes him want to kill Antonio, not his general feelings towards Christians, which stand out to be the main reason.
Some could argue against this because when the Jews came to Europe they were forced into money lending, so it became a part of their Jewish life and in a way it became a part of their Jewishness.
In the play Shylock keeps referring back to the Torah (Jewish Bible) to prove that usury was right whenever Antonio undermines it (1:3).
” Directly interest- mark what Jacob did.”
Jews chose to isolate themselves from the rest of the community because they thought they were the chosen people of God. Shylock also isolates himself from society in the play.
” But I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you…” (1:3)
An audience would not sympathize with Shylock because he chooses to be isolated from society, which gives the impression that he is slightly superior as a Jew to other people, which attracts insults from other people. This shows that Shylock’s Jewishness is responsible for his actions and attitudes towards Antonia and other Christians in the play.
At court Shylock is being insulted even more because he wants to kill Antonio, which makes him even more determined and creates sympathy from a modern audience.
Antonio also get back at Shylock, but telling his friends to leave the Jew alone and keeps talking about how no one can save him from the “Jew” because he trying to die like a martyr.
Shylock justifies his claim of Antonia’s flesh but as he is only Jew he still harassed and no one is willing to listen to him, which still gives a sympathetic view to the modern audience.
” You have among you a purchased slave….
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? Let their beds….
You will answer ‘The slave are ours’.”
A modern audience would side with Shylock’s views because of the good argument he puts up about the Christians who are as guilty as him for the way they treat their slaves. Also Shylock uses this argument to prove his case by saying that if you can buy slaves so can I, Antonio owes me three thousand ducats so I now own him and can do what I like with him. This puts in to doubt whether it is Shylock’s Jewishness that leads to his actions or human nature.
Again there is another emphasis of the Jew being referred to as the devil, which puts under doubt who is in the wrong, Shylock or the Christians?
We know Shylock very clever and uses the law as a disguise to murder Antonio and Shakespeare has added a sarcastic comment, to build up even more hatred among the Elizabethan audience.
” An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice.”
We see throughout the play Shylock uses examples from the Torah and his religion to back up his arguments against the Christians, but for the wrong reasons.
In the end Shylock demands nothing but the bond and he gets caught up in Portia’s trap, where she uses the law to stop Shylock from taking any flesh from Antonia.
” Take then thy bond, take thy pound of flesh,
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate.”
Then Gratiano starts to mock Shylock for praising the judge and calling him ” a learned judge” and this keeps the sympathy for Shylock. Throughout the play the sympathy for Shylock has been kept by the modern audience because of the circumstances he was put in before he wanted revenge. Although several times in the play Shylock says that the real reason he wants to kill Antonia is because he brings down the rate of usury. So the question we must ask ourselves is whether it is Shylock’s greed for money or his religious views that are behind his actions and attitudes in the play?
Shylock actions were also influenced by Tubal (3:1) who kept giving him bad news, about his daughter spending his money and then “good” news about Antonio’s bad luck.
” Fourscore ducats at a sitting! Fourscore ducats!”
” Tubal. There came divers of Antonio’s creditors in my company to Venice…”
It seems that in this scene Tubal saw his chance of winding Shylock up enough that he became bloodthirsty.
You have to include such factors as Tubal’s influence, Shylock’s greed, his religious views and the traditional Jewish way of life before coming to a definite conclusion and I believe it is not really Shylock’s Jewishness which, cause him to take the attitudes and actions in the Merchant of Venice.