Over hundreds of years, great men and women of English literature have spent countless hours debating one of the most simple yet controversial questions: What did Shakespeare mean by Shylock? When he created him Shakespeare could not have anticipated that Shylock would become the emblem around which so much contention would rage. Shakespeare’s money-lender is now the symbol for those who love and those who hate anti-Semitism.
Whether to the individual spectator Shylock is a victim or a villain is a disputable affair, but how Shakespeare wanted to present this character is the key to unlocking the doors of the Merchant of Venice. Many people are villainous in the way they act, and their villainous acts may be rooted in the desire to destroy others, or in the hopes of elevating themselves. In plays and films villains are often antagonists in story plots, and essentially a threat to a central character. It is possible to see with reasonable supposition that Shylock shows traits of villainy.
In the very first scene that we meet Shylock we see signs of villainy. In Act 1 Scene 3 the relationship between the merchant and the money lender is a quarrelsome one. From the moment Antonio enters, we can see Shylock accepting the roles of a villain, with his racist conviction:
I hate him for he is a Christian
Shakespeare puts forth a very passionate image of this evidently chauvinistic Jew. Immediately Shakespeare has presented an image that will leave the audience biased for the rest of the play affecting whatever Shylock says or does.
Shylock’s relationship with Antonio is a key point in the portrayal of his villainy. In the very first scene Antonio is introduced, the audience for which the play was written would be expected to warm to this generous and loyal character. During Act 1 Scene 3 obvious friction between the two depicts Shylock as the reason why this is so.
Shylock But note me, signior…
Antonio Mark you this, Bassanio
The devil can cite scripture for his purpose
Although Shylock draws up the forfeit “in a merry sport” the suspiciousness shown by the ‘good’ Christians gives an additional opportunity for Shakespeare to portray Shylock as villainous. Antonio and Shylock’s argumentative behaviour finds other significance in the play, but Antonio is not the sole receiver of Shylock’s villainy.
Launcelot’s relationship with his master Shylock brings out a strong interpretation of the money lender by Shakespeare. In Act 2 Scene 2 Shakespeare uses Launcelot to give an image of Shylock:
I should stay with the Jew my master, who (God bless the mark)
is… the devil himself; certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.
Shakespeare also converts Shylock’s idealistic villainy into association with the fact that he is Jewish.
I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.
Here Launcelot uses the word ‘Jew’ to mean a villain, which Shakespeare deliberately does (hiding behind the humour of the ‘clown’) to show the general association between the two words in his time, as well as condemning Shylock even further to appear for the conclusion of the play as a villain.
Shakespeare slots Shylock into another sign of a villain: When acts are rooted in the hope of elevating oneself. His belligerent behaviour towards Launcelot confirms this when he says, “Who bid thee call, I did not bid thee call,” which shows abuse of his authority over Launcelot. This gives the impression that Launcelot has not been well treated in the past and that the household is not being run smoothly.
Jessica is introduced as Shylock’s daughter in Act 2 Scene 3. In this scene she is very upset as she says, “Our house is hell.” This proclamation is not pursued any longer, which leaves the audience to imagine the kind of things that were going on in the covert household of the money lender. One is not left to speculate for much longer. The instant she arrives with Shylock in Act Scene 6 her first words are, “Call you? what is your will?” This would appear peculiar even during Shakespeare’s time (The Renaissance).Shakespeare has portrayed Jessica as more of a servant as there is not a drop of fatherly fondness from Shylock. When Shylock discovers that Jessica has eloped with some of his jewels he is not emotional at the loss of a daughter, but at the loss of his money and jewels:
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
“…Stolen by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!”
When Solanio reports this news, Shakespeare uses words such as “outcries” and “outrageous” to give an impression of a crazed hyena – blinded by love of money and fuelled by want of revenge. Viewing Shylock in this way makes it easier to think as a villain – if you take away his humanity, he is little more that an animal. Shakespeare also brings some wolfish qualities into Shylocks character in Act 4 Scene 1, which improvises on the villainous qualities he has revealed in past scenes to create an inhumane, larger than life villain.
thy desires are wolfish, bloody, starved and ravenous
Shylock readily meets these accusations with his ‘bloody’ desires to carry out the forfeit in order to feed his desire for revenge.
Shakespeare interprets his villainy as being based on his religion. Shylock shows this in his very first scene, where he believes Antonio has wronged him because he is a Jew. This again links to the definition of villainy, because his actions have been rooted in the desire to destroy others (i.e. Antonio – for being a Christian). This is reinforced by the suspiciousness shown by Bassanio when the bond was drawn up months ago. It proves that the Christians were right yet again – right not to trust Shylock.
Shakespeare presents Shylock as little more than an animal in some scenes, but in others he shows signs of being victimised. A victim is someone punished unfairly and/or discriminated against.
In the very first scene that we meet Shylock, Shakespeare has put forth a fairly weighted portrayal of him. From his initial words when Antonio enters to his notorious bond, many would view Shakespeare’s interpretation of Shylock as entirely villainous. However, one can find evidence to suggest the contrary.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Shylock’s aside speech is likely to be honest as nobody on the stage can hear him. The accusations made upon Antonio’s head give no information to suggest lack of integrity on Shylock’s part. Antonio has insulted Shylock, and is prejudiced against him. Shakespeare has begun walking the first steps towards Shylock’s victimization.
Shylock’s passionate way in which he insults Antonio makes one wonder what Antonio has done to make Shylock behave in this way. Shakespeare provides some useful background information to the troubles that Shylock has been subjected to in the past. Shakespeare has had another opportunity to show the victimized money lender in a sympathetic light when he is considering the bond:
“And foot me as you spurn a strange cur
Over your threshold; money is your suit,
…should I not say: ‘Hath a dog money?’
Shakespeare is again hiding behind another character to reflect on humanity as a whole. He is saying, ‘is it not natural for me to be angry after all that you have done to me?’ And indeed one would expect a sympathetic answer. Instead Shakespeare offers an ‘uncharacteristic’ outburst by the merchant, showing that the strained relationship between the two is not entirely the fault of Shylock.
Shakespeare presents Shylock very clearly as a villain using Launcelot who describes Shylock as ‘the devil himself’. However, Shakespeare does give reason to doubt Launcelot’s sincerity. In Act 2 Scene 5 Shylock complains that Launcelot eats too much, but in Act 2 Scene 2 Launcelot claimed that he had been starved by Shylock!
Jessica’s relationship with her father enhances his role as a villain. However, Shakespeare gives no indication of the relationship being difficult because of Shylock’s firmness. There is evidence to suggest a rebellious daughter demonstrated in Act 2 Scene 5 :
Shylock What says that fool of Hagar’s offspring? ha?
Jessica His words were, “Farewell mistress,” nothing else.
The ease with which she lies to Shylock brings an untrustworthy side to her seemingly pious nature. Yet again, in Act 2 Scene 6 she is more concerned with the fact that she is clothed like a boy than the stealing from her father.
Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.
I am glad ’tis night – you do not look on me
For I am much ashamed of my exchange [disguise]
When Shylock begins to justify his reasons for maintaining his will to perform the forfeit one begins to understand all that he has been through and the injustice he has suffered. Shylock cries, “He hath disgraced me… and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” Shakespeare makes a significant point about the unfair treatment of Jewish people in his society. The victimization of Jews simply because they were Jewish was something very common in his time, and the open prejudice shown even in court is rather alarming.
Shakespeare highlights the downfall of Shylock very powerfully, casting him as a typical victim. With nothing left, the roles of the characters shift. Gratiano’s words take a tone of mockery and spite, rather than the innocent jibes that appeared earlier on in the scene. Even when Shakespeare presents the Christians as the winners, he incorporates religion (and therefore discrimination) into their motives.
Tarry, Jew…if it be proved against an alien
In a court of law Shakespeare very deliberately uses these words to show just how much of a victim Shylock is. It also prepares us to see the wrath of ‘Justice’ the Christians pour upon him.
When Antonio has the final say on Shylock’s fate the noble and sombre merchant is gone; a revengeful character is left. Shakespeare showed little to suggest that Shylock grieved for the loss of his daughter, but to give all he has when he dies to Lorenzo who ‘stole’ his daughter would be very angering for Shylock. Shakespeare secretly portrays this as injustice upon Shylock in his use of the word ‘stole’. It was Lorenzo (and Jessica) who stole from him, and now it is Shylock who must give him all he owns.
Shakespeare truly gives Antonio the last laugh when he makes Shylock become a Christian. The one thing that Shylock has always stuck by was his faith, and the fact that he must become a Christian, the thing that he hates creates a great deal of sympathy for him. This punishment appears most unjust, and Shakespeare uses Shylock’s response to invoke some sympathy from his audience:
I pray you give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well
This powerful imagine of an unwell man, broken in spirit shows that Shakespeare did want to present part of Shylock as both a villain and a victim.
Shylock is the villain of The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare presented this Jewish character, infamous for his lust for money, and his hatred of Christians in order to appeal to the anti-Semitic audience at the time. Nevertheless, this is not the sole reason why Shakespeare presents this individual as villainous.
Shakespeare has made it clear that Shylock has almost been forced into this villainous role, through his victimization:
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst cause,
But since I am a dog beware my fangs
I feel that Shakespeare used this bigoted, money-orientated Jew to reflect on the true nature of society today, and how people should treat one another.