Shylock is one of the interesting and intriguing characters in The Merchant of Venice. Those who agree with the title statement believe that throughout the play he is looked down upon, betrayed, isolated, punished and humiliated by Christian society and even by his own daughter and that it is this which leads him to madness and evilness and that he was always a good person underneath. The other argument is that Shylock is a greedy character and that he always was. A character that does anything he can to cause unhappiness for others and benefit financially from his evilness.
The audience may believe that his greed and evilness may have started out with petty crimes, but have resulted in Shakespeare exposing the true extent of his evilness at the end of the play. Those who defend Shylock’s actions or label his actions as understandable or comprehensible, are adamant that his wickedness which he shows towards Antonio at the end of the play coupled together with his attitude and heartlessness, are a result of alienation from his fellow Venetians, although they cannot argue against the merciless actions of Shylock throughout the play.
Their belief that Shylock started off as a nice man looking purely for business is shown in Shylock’s first appearance in the play in Act 1 Scene 3 when Bassanio is talking about Antonio taking out a loan on his behalf. Shylock seems jovial at this point, when he is in conversation with Bassanio until Antonio enters the picture. The audience can instantly see a change in Shylock’s language and speech as this is happening, He begins to become annoyed and his speech lengthens every time, as he attempts to answer his company fully.
The audience may claim that up to this point Shylock was being what he really was underneath, i. e. an agreeable businessman. His true character then begins to come through when Antonio enters; He immediately begins to insult Antonio, this maybe due to the years of constant suffering brought to him by Antonio simply because of Shylock’s cast and religion. “I hate him for he is a Christian” and “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” These are two examples of his wickedness in Antonio’s presence.
We must also remember that he has not yet been provoked by Antonio so far in this particular encounter between the two, although we must again refer to the possibility of Shylock’s actions being justified due to the constant provocation over the years and we could assume that Shylock is simply retaliating. This part, however, shows him in his true colours as an evil man and gives the anti-Shylock faction an insight into the meanness of Shylock and it makes the reader think that he has been born nasty. In the defence of Shylock he comments about why he bears such an enormous grudge against Antonio.
Shylock’s attitude towards Antonio then begins to change as he negotiates with him over the repayment of the loan. This is purely a trick and certainly does not portray Shylock as a victim nor a tragic figure to the audience. Antonio is being very nice at this point in time also. The moment in which Shylock reminds Antonio of the grief he has caused him on the Rialto through his insults, is a significant one. As he is reminding Antonio he keeps saying that he has “Borne it with a patient shrug” He then asks Antonio why he should lend him the money when he has been so rude towards him.
He accuses Antonio of spitting on him and directing harsh names towards him and his Jewish community. Antonio replies and comments that he is just as likely to do these things again. This suggests to the audience that Antonio does not care about Shylock’s feelings and that indeed Shylock has been the subject of constant abuse from Antonio this constant abuse may have caused Shylock to become detached and segregated from the Venetian society around him. This abuse might have been burning him from the inside over the years and has helped the anger within Shylock to accumulate.
Shylock’s years of abuse might have been the source of his spite towards others. All his anger towards others might indeed be retaliation to the abuse he has suffered, but we must not assume that this is the whole reason why Shylock has become such an evil character. Shylock’s apparent change of heart is shown when he replies to Antonio’s proposal, and calls Antonio his friend, this is deception, so he can fool Antonio with regards to the bond that exists between them, this could be a good form of revenge for him, provoked by Antonio’s nastiness.
Shylock’s hatred towards Antonio is quite apparent throughout the play, there are many reasons why he hates Antonio, the fact that Antonio curses him at every opportunity is way down on his list but it reinforces Shylock’s prejudice driving him to revenge, and as with everything the main reasons are the financial ones. Antonio charges no interest to Christians and so therefore steals half of Shylock’s potential business.
This is the main reason why Shylock scorns Antonio, although we cannot assume that Antonio does this intentionally in order to ruin Shylock’s business, as usury was against the preaching of the Catholic Church at the time. The second reason for hatred is that of religious alienation. Shylock feels threatened by the Christian, whose religion does not force him into the caste of moneylender. Shylock is therefore envious of Antonio’s influence. Antonio comments upon Shylock’s kindness and despite his intellect, is not in the slightest bit suspicious of Shylock’s change of heart.
When Shylock tells Antonio of the forfeit we can assume he says it in a joking way to make it seem trivial (Shylock actually asks Antonio to take the bond “in a merry sport” This line may have made the forfeit proposed seems inconsiderable and a friendly joke), Antonio takes this forfeit at face value thinking that it is just a joke and hastily agrees to seal the bond. This scene gives the reader a small insight into Shylock’s behaviour towards others so they can make a small decision on whether Shylock is a victim or not in that scene.
His character is one of greed and hatred, though there may be some reasoning behind it. There is a much notable wordplay between the two characters in their first scene together. Shylock talks of the hundreds of times Antonio has shunned him and looked down upon him. Antonio interrupts him, but then makes the mistake of saying “With better face, exact the penalty”. This almost invites Shylock to choose the most gruesome forfeit that he can. From these writings the audience can assume Shylock is nothing more than a persecuted Jew, trying to make a living that is acceptable to his people.
However we cannot draw conclusions from this scene alone, but must draw evidence from a number of scenes involving Shylock to ascertain a good, well rounded evaluation of Shylock. For instance: to obtain a good evaluation of Shylock’s attitude towards other Jews we must observe his behaviour around his daughter, Jessica, but even this is influenced by family ties. The first time that we witness a conversation between Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, is in Act 2 Scene 5.
Shylock is not portrayed as the model father, but we will have to make judgement on his character from his one scene with his daughter and of course the later scene after she has stolen his money. The first is not an ideal scene to draw upon, as Shylock may seem ill-attentive, but may simply be worried about his business matters. Throughout this scene, Shylock seems preoccupied with his business matters “Go in hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian”. Lancelot also is present so daughter and father cannot share information freely.
This scene is a portrayal of an inattentive, restrictive father. Evidence for this is very limited in this scene, however, as Shylock only has the duty of ordering his daughter to lock up and to not watch the Masque ball. Eventually, after years of words falling upon Shylock’s ignorant ears, we hear Jessica’s parting words “I have a father, you are a daughter, lost”. We have to decide in this scene whether Shylock is indeed a cruel father, or just an ignorant man who subconsciously ignores his daughter.
In the second scene there is much evidence for Shylock valuing money over his daughter as someone mocks him saying “My daughter! , My ducats! “. This is good evidence, even though it comes from a third party. The sheer inhumanity of valuing ducats over daughter must leave the audience hating Shylock even more. When he does eventually emerge, though, he is greeted by Salarino and Solanio, and comes out with the speech: “I am a Jew, Hath a Jew not eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections passions” and then: “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? ”
Here Shylock is asking why the Christians treat him as a lesser being even though he is the same as them, basically he is saying that isn’t a Jew still a human being? This will immediately help the audience to sympathise with Shylock as they digest his speech. Then, just as he has the audience thinking that he is a nice person, who is just a victim of religious discrimination, he says “A diamond cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt! The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that, and other precious, precious jewels!
I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at the foot, and the ducats in her coffin” This speech proves how greedy and ruthless Shylock is. It is also real evidence of how he values ducats over his daughter again, and is enough to make the audience hate him again. He is definitely not a victim here as he is verbally abusing his own daughter. In the last two paragraphs, a very delicate balance is exposed. The audience’s sympathy for Shylock is crumbling with every line and any mistake by Shylock could prove decisive.
The maltreatment of Shylock continues into the end of the play with the final courtroom scene where Shylock demands the payment of his bond. The court examines the document and finds it legal, but they stall and offer bribes. Maybe, a reason why the punishment was not carried out immediately is because Antonio is a pillar of the community and a respected figure, while Shylock is a hated moneylender. In this scene, however, Shylock is acting very out of character as he repeatedly turns down the offer of more money.
The audience now has to decide whether Shylock is a greedy, evil, blood-thirsty man, or just a man who has come to the end of his tether, to the extent, that he now wants Antonio’s flesh as revenge. Shylock is then undone by his greed, as Portia finds a legal loophole in the document as she says “Take your pound of flesh, but let not a drop of blood be spilt” Shylock sinks. Seeing that he has been beaten, the greed still remains, and he tries to regain his money. Portia now begins to take Shylock apart, making him give up all his money and change religion. In conclusion to this play we have to look at all the facts.
We are aware Shylock was verbally abused throughout the play, and called name such as: “evil soul, misbeliever, cut-throat dog, cur, fiend, devil, dog Jew, faithless Jew, old carrion, bloody creditor, unfeeling man, harsh Jew, damned, currish spirit and cruel devil” We also know that he was greedy, selfish, evil and ruthless. In many ways he can be compared with other great fictional evils introduced by Shakespeare, he can be compared with Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Capulet refers to his daughter being dead at his feet and himself not caring in the slightest.
A comparison can be made between him and Shylock as there are many similarities in their characters. Yet, Shylock is portrayed as a villain, while Capulet is portrayed as an ignorant father not seeing the true love between Romeo and Juliet. This may have something to do with the religion of both characters; Capulet is a religious Christian, while Shylock is a Jew, and is apparently guilty of the same sins, yet is looked down upon by audiences worldwide.
In response to the question posed, I think that Shylock is not a tragic figure at all, and was not driven to evilness by others. I believe that he became more evil as his wealth increased, his character seems to be a very hard character in the play, a character which has no feelings about anyone else’s life other than his own life. He is portrayed, by Shakespeare as a character who values money over life, and this is quite apparent throughout the play. Any man who thinks in this way does not make a very popular character in a play.
I feel that the audience of the play would not sympathise with Shylock, although they will have to acknowledge that Shylock has suffered abuse and that Shakespeare might have been anti-Semitic and might have purposefully portrayed Shylock as a miser. Shylock is drawn as being a person of darkness, his suffering is overwhelming, this rage for revenge must for the satisfaction of the audience, be punished. Shylock is essentially a complex character. At the beginning Shylock is simply a miser, during the five scenes Shakespeare turns him into an intensely complex character.
He is : comic, savage, crafty, deeply suffering. Things do not go well for Shylock, too much is weighted against him and the contempt for him reaches its climax in the trial. He is taken to pieces under an avalanche of penalties He is reduced as a person. Shylock may die with money but his reputation has been torn to shreds. Even though he has been abused by Venetians, I think that this is not the reasoning behind his evilness. The reason behind it is greed. In response to the final courtroom scene, if he had to be called a victim, he was a victim of his own greed.