In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a wealthy Jew and moneylender. Bassanio, a young Venetian, is a spendthrift, and asks his friend Antonio to lend him money in order for him to pay off his debts. Antonio agrees, but as his wealth relies on his ships, which are at sea, and therefore needs to borrow the money. Shylock lends 3000 ducats to Antonio, providing that if he is unable to repay him, “let the forfeit be one pound of your fair flesh”. Antonio agrees, mistakenly perceiving the bond to be in jest.
His ships sink, leaving him unable to repay Shylock, who insists that he receives the pound of flesh. Many members of a contemporary audience would sympathise with Shylock, as he has been a victim of prejudice. Antonio is a bigot and, like many Christians in that period, an anti Semitic. On several previous occasions he has bullied Antonio by insulting him, calling him “misbeliever and cut-throat dog” and has “spat on my Jewish gabardine”. In his soliloquy, Shylock admits that he “hates him for he is Christian” and plans to “catch him once on the hip”.Order now
In his speech in Act 1, Scene 3, he is extremely polite to Antonio at first, addressing him as “Signior Antonio” and “Fair sir” and using a calm tone and several anecdotes. However, his resentment and bitter feelings towards Antonio soon emerge, shown by the way in which he uses harsh, unpleasant phrases such as ” foot me as you spurn a stranger cur”, and begins to insult him stating, “moneys is your suit”. The calm tone is replaced with a rushed, less fluent speech. Shylock also uses dramatic irony relating to the way in which Antonio referred to him as a dog, saying “Hath a dog money?
Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats? ” At this stage, he has not mentioned the forfeit of the pound of flesh, and a modern audience would perceive him as an innocent victim. However, a contemporary audience would have felt less compassion towards Shylock as they too lived in an anti-Semitic society. Jews were discriminated against and treated badly. Christians disapproved of usurers, who loaned money then charged interest. It could be argued that Christians were jealous of Jews, and as a possible result of this Jews were relegated to ghettos.
There are elements of humanity in the character, mainly in his “Hath not a Jew eyes” soliloquy, in which he pleads his right to equality and to revenge himself on the Christians who wrong him. A modern audience is more likely to sympathise with Shylock, as discrimination and racism, though it still exists, is deemed politically incorrect and consequently frowned upon. However, Shylock himself states, “I hate him for he is Christian”, which in addition to insulting many members of the audience, is another example of racism.
The sympathy would wane with both audiences when Shylock proposes the forfeit of a pound of flesh, as it is nauseating and completely inappropriate, although at this point the audience may still believe he is jesting as Shylock refers to the agreement as a “merry bond”. Their sympathy would deteriorate further after Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, as Shylock appears to be deeply concerned about the loss of his money rather than the welfare of his daughter, lamenting, “Thou hast stuck a dagger in me: I shall never see my gold again! “. He also says “O my ducats! O my daughter!
The way in which me mentions the loss of his money before his daughter implies that he considers his wealth to be more important to him than his family. This portrays him as a callous miser. The trial scene in a Venetian court forms a dramatic end to the play. Portia, sent by the Duke and disguised as a young male scholar, begs Shylock to show mercy, pleading,” be merciful, take thrice thy money” and suggesting in her famous “quality of mercy” speech that he should be like God. Shylock almost relinquishes the bond, yet ultimately he refuses the money and insists he has a legal right to receive the pound of flesh.
The sympathy a modern audience may have originally would wane considerably at this point, as Shylock clearly intends to murder Antonio. For a moment it appear that he may be successful, yet eventually Portia realises that the bond is restricted to the removal of only flesh, not blood, and would therefore be impossible. Shylock then compromises and asks for money instead. His suggestion is rejected, though, and is forced to give up half of his wealth and donate his property to Jessica and Lorenzo. Worst of all, he is given no option but to convert to Christianity.
As he leaves the court, after his eloquence and anecdotes, he concludes with a short speech mainly consisting of monosyllables, muttering, ” I am not well; send the deed after me and I will sign it”. To conclude, Shakespeare may have been creating a different kind of villain in Shylock. Shylock is not a stereotypical villain, but neither is there a stereotypical hero. He may have intended to portray the way in which the treatment of others can affect their personality. This is shown by the way Shylock’s personally appears to be tainted by the discrimination shown towards him, particularly by Antonio.