The Merchant of Venice, deals with issues that have as much of a relevance, if not more, in today’s society than they did in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century: money, discrimination and love between people that aren’t supposed to fall in love. Attitudes in the sixteenth century towards Jews meant that any Jewish character would have been expected to conform to a stereotype, like Marlowe’s Barabas in The Jew of Malta, a conventional comic play. Somebody in today’s audience, would see Shylock’s character flicker between being seen as a villain and being seen as a victim throughout the play, whereas people in the Elizabethan era and for at least 200 years after, would have seen Christianity as the superior religion and therefore Shylock would almost always be portrayed as a villain.
Structurally speaking, The Merchant of Venice is technically a comedy, but the way in which the initially typical, evil character, in this case Shylock, can be seen to be victimised on several occasions throughout the play makes it something of a problem play. If Shakespeare had stuck more rigidly to the conventions of a typical comedy’s plot, then it would follow a storyline less like to be interpreted as having tragic elements. The other characters in the play also have more ambiguous qualities, which impact on the steady melodic flow of events that take place throughout the play. The play is also strange in that the characters that appear dominant through cross-dressing, maintain that authority when returning to their standard roles. This is unusual and uncommon amongst the expectations of an audience of that time period.
Shylock first appears in The Merchant of Venice in act one scene three where he is seen negotiating the terms of a loan with Bassanio. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender from the Ghetto who makes his fortune lending people money and charging interest. From this first encounter with the character, we can immediately deduce some interesting character traits in Shylock. In this short section of text and his connection with Bassanio, we are able to uncover a sly element to Shylock’s character. At first he seems cautious to lend Bassanio money because he is unsure if he will pay back all the money with the desired amount of interest. That is however, only up until the point at which Bassanio lays down Antonio’s name as surety for the loan,
“For the which Antonio shall be bound.”
At this point Shylock has the surety he needs but instead of granting the loan immediately, he continues to stall and ponder upon the subject. We can see from this that his general intention is to keep Bassanio guessing and unsure of his fortunes for as long as possible.
Next Shylock asks to speak with Antonio, and when he appears, he speaks in a sudden aside telling the audience what he thinks of Antonio.
“I hate him for he is a Christian.”
His overall comments in his aside are indicative of his hatred towards Antonio. He goes into great detail over the grudge he bears Antonio, which defines him almost immediately as a villain. Although Shylock delivers to the audience a comprehensive list of the elements of Antonio’s character he despises, his only real justification for his hatred is Antonio’s religion. The fact that he says this in an aside shows that Shylock is cowardly as he is unable to speak to Antonio’s face but instead chooses to tell the audience his feelings without actually speaking to Antonio so as to avoid having to confront his bigotry. For this reason, the audience are likely to see him as a villainous character, intended to be bitter and relentless.
Later on in the scene however, after Shylock has agreed with Bassanio the terms of the bond (three thousand ducats for three months to which Antonio shall be bound) we see him talking to Antonio as if he never agreed to the terms and as if he was still awaiting assurance from Antonio. He speaks of Jews in a general manner and explains some of the ways in which Jews are individually persecuted on a day-to-day basis. This is a very powerful speech in terms of Jewish persecution because, although Shylock is speaking about Jews to reflect on his own sufferings, it also becomes apparent that Shylock in a very indirect way, is speaking on behalf of all discriminated minorities throughout history, and this gives him a real sense of power and authority. There is continuity between the way that Hitler used his hatred for his people in the Jewish community, to present himself as a good Christian, and the way that Antonio expresses his faith. Antonio’s sub-conscious expressions make it obvious to a modern audience that his own understanding of being a true Christian, comes from his hatred and abuse of Shylock rather than any real generosity or signs of mercy.
Jewish Holy Scriptures lay emphasis on the necessity of peace and tranquillity within society, which is hugely contradicted by Shylock’s eagerness to reap his revenge on Antonio so much so that he suspends all moral judgement in the situation. This fits in almost parallel to the way that Christians in the Twelfth century, expelling Jews from England, inflicted their cruel and harsh persecution on the Jews contradicting all their views of mercy and morality.
When Shylock says,
“Suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.”
he is making a statement that looks forward in time from Shakespeare’s day as much as it looks back, from the point of a modern-day audience. His sense of suffering as a part of his religious identity is something that can be recognised as much today as then. Shylock is in a way a very domineering character, which is justified in his dedicated faith in his religion much more so than any of the other characters in the play, who are far more hypocritical. This is very commendable and is one of the only points in the play in which we can actually see Shylock behaving in a more righteous manor than any of the other characters.
An audience with today’s knowledge would feel sorry for Shylock in a general way in that they would feel sorry for all the Jews knowing of their encounter with the Nazis and such events throughout history. However for an Elizabethan audience, that one statement alone hidden amongst the speech would not have counteracted all the misconceptions they would have had of people in the Jewish community. Shakespeare needed, through Shylock, to be more specific about the persecution the Jews faced from a supposedly good, honest Christian community. Shakespeare must have understood the humiliation and anguish to which the Jews had been subjected for so many centuries because he was able to slot that in perfectly so as to thicken the plot and win over a degree of pity from predictably anti-Semitic audience.
He achieves this in a very subtle way: he allows Shylock, when talking to Antonio, to bring back memories of all the different things Antonio has ever done to hurt him either physically or psychologically. Shylock says,
“You call me misbeliever, cut throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish Gabardine.”
Shylock shares these experiences with the people of the Elizabethan audience to introduce the idea of how the prejudice he suffers affects him as a human. Although he didn’t know it, Shakespeare was able to use the victim-like qualities in Shylock to win over future audiences at least as much as the contemporary audience.
Shylock next appears in act two scene five when he returns home to find his daughter Jessica talking to Lancelot Gobbo, his servant and, although he doesn’t know this, they were talking about Jessica eloping with her lover Lorenzo. Jessica protests to Shylock and hurries Lancelot away. It is obvious from Jessica’s behaviour that she is frightened of what Shylock would do to her if he ever found out about Lorenzo and her and their love for one another. She talks to Lancelot about her leaving and what it will be like when they and married, she says in an aside,
“To be ashamed to be my fathers child.”
This shows how desperate Jessica is and confirms to the audience the role Shylock’s character plays as villain in the plot. If his own daughter cannot live with him for fear of what he might do to her, it is understandable, that the other characters in the play dislike him. We can however sympathise with Shylock because of the circumstances that allowed Jessica and Lorenzo to leave for Belmont and also for the way in which Lorenzo and Jessica behaved before and after the elopement.
Almost all of the Christian characters the audience had been introduced to so far, had something to do with the ease of their escape: Bassanio invited Shylock to dinner so as to give Jessica and Lorenzo adequate time to hide on Antonio’s ship. The Duke deliberately called off the search as soon as he was made aware of Jessica’s presence. In both of these cases, Shylock has been set up to allow Jessica to escape. This is one of the areas in the play where it can be seen as a ‘problem play.’ His suffering is starting to be beyond fairness or at the level of a comedy. If the plot had been constructed to act as a comedy, then it is unlikely that this scene would have worked in the same way.
When Lorenzo elopes with Jessica, Shylock is being robbed of his rights over his daughter. This would have been recognised by an Elizabethan audience who would have understood these parental rights and so been able to sympathise with him. Because of their actions, both before and after the elopement, we would expect the audiences sympathies to remain on Shylock’s side but the basis for sympathising with her comes from anti-Semitic prejudice against his desire that she should be faithful to her own religion.
In act three scene one, we see Solanio and Salerino talking about Antonio. In this scene we find out that numerous ships belonging to Antonio have sunk in the dangerous Goodwins. Solanio says that Antonio has little left that he can hold to his name and hints at the fact that he won’t be able to repay the loan.
Shylock enters unaware of Antonio’s misfortunes. He speaks about Jessica having left. At this point we feel sorry for Shylock, we sympathise in his loss when he says,
“My own flesh and blood to rebel.”
We feel pity for Shylock because now that Jessica has left, he has no one. He feels betrayed because the only person he really has left in the world, has left him and committed the one sin that is most unforgivable to her Jewish father’s sense of identity, she has married a Christian. By doing this Jessica has deliberately stabbed Shylock in the back.
However, this pity is short lived because whilst proclaiming Jessica’s departure, he says,
“My daughter, o my ducats.”
Although he mentions his daughter and how he is distressed about her departure, he mentions the money that she has stolen much more frequently. This shows us that he is more shocked about the money than about Jessica.
Shylock explains to the audience what he thinks will happen to Jessica as a consequence of her actions. He says,
“She will be damned.”
He believes that she is damned because she deserted her father and married a Christian.
As a consequence, his comments do not sufficiently contradict all of the things he has said and done so far in the play that make us aware of his villainous attributes.
Solanio and Salerino then go on to tell Shylock about Antonio’s ships being lost at sea. To this news Shylock rejoices greatly much to Salerino’s astonishment. He addresses Solanio and Salerino as representatives for the entire Christian community and utters his immortal lines:
“Hath not a Jew eyes; 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 that 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?”
At this point in he play we feel immense pity for Shylock who has faced so much inequality and intolerance from the Venetian people. However this pity soon turns to anger because no sooner has he finished saying how he has been so poorly treated, he begins talking about taking revenge. He says to Solanio and Salerino that if a Jew did wrong a Christian, the Christian would take his own brutal revenge accordingly so because a Christian has wronged him, he will do the same. By this point in the play, Shylock’s character has been revealed so fully that the audience has seen almost all of the different aspects of his personality. This is the point at which Shylock labelled firmly as a victim or a villain once and for all. However the scene had been performed, Shakespeare would have left a lasting impression of Shylock on the audience be it one of a villain or a victim.
In act three scene three, Antonio meets Shylock in the street just before the court case is about to begin. It is a short scene in which Shylock refers in conversation with Antonio, to the situation in which Antonio called Shylock a dog. Here again we feel that Shylock has been cruelly mistreated by the Christians. He is now able to enjoy his triumph over Antonio. Shylock explains that in the Biblical teachings, mercy was associated with the followers of Jesus, the Christians. But in Venice Shylock was an outcast and no one would show him mercy. He tells Antonio to expect no mercy from him. He says,
“Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause,
But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”
He can’t wait to take revenge on Antonio so by saying this he is trying to get his teeth into Antonio before his time comes in the courtroom. Shylock is portrayed very villainously here because, although he is describing his persecution which should in theory make that audience pity him, he says that if he actually is all of the foul, dirty things he, and all of the other Jews, have been called, then people should be wary of those things because they might just come back round and take their revenge.
The final place Shylock appears is in the trial scene, act four scene one, where he is talking to the Duke. The Duke is trying to persuade Shylock that he has made his point and that the trial doesn’t need to take place to prove any points. To this Shylock replies with a long speech commanding the Duke not to question his motives but accept that he will take what is rightfully his.
In my opinion, Shylock is very commendable for his eagerness to remain above the temptation to let Antonio free after he is offered a vast amount of money to do so.
Throughout the duration of the trial, Shylock deliberately refuses to show Antonio any kind of mercy, irrespective of the fact that he is warned many times that God will not take mercy on the day of judgement on any one who is unable to show mercy to his fellow man on earth. This makes us hate Shylock even more because it shows that he is willing to do risk everything to have the opportunity of killing the man he hates most in the whole of Venice.
Towards the end of the scene, Portia, dressed as a lawyer, informs Shylock of one fact that had he been aware of it in the first place, would have dramatically changed his decision and the whole course of the trial. She said, that as he was a Jew, he was an alien in society and any alien that plotted against a true citizen of the state, a Christian, would be punishable by death, with his life in the hands of the Duke who determines what is punishment for a crime. In Shylock’s case his individual punishment for conspiring to harm Antonio, was worse than death. He would have to give up half of everything he owned to his daughter and her new Christian husband. The other half had to go to Antonio, and Shylock was to become a Christian for the remainder of his life. This is the final point in the play where we feel pity towards Shylock because of the punishment he has to bear. This is opposed to the feeling that he got what he deserved as far as a punishment is concerned for all of the things he has done to numerous characters throughout the play.
Shylock is the most memorable character in the play because of Shakespeare’s excellent characterization of him. Shylock is in some ways presented as a typical scapegoat in the play, and he is easily portrayed as an evil character because he stands in the way of love, and so desperately seeks brutal revenge on Antonio.
Shakespeare’s manipulation of our feelings for Shylock is the one element that makes the play what it is. He gave Shylock the ability to make us hate him viciously and deeply sympathise with him at the same time. In today’s society, where religion is on the whole less important to the lives of most people, I believe that sympathy for Shylock would prevail, as an audience would recognise that Shylock is subject to human frailties. In Shakespearean times however, Shylock would have been afforded no such pity. Religion structured society and those falling on the wrong side were considered to be in the wrong at the outset. Consequently, without doubt, Shylock would have been regarded as the villain of the piece.