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Is Shylock a villain or victim in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Essay

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The overall climax of this play is brilliantly displayed because the realism of the discrimination and prejudice towards Jews helps us to develop a sympathetic feeling for them. Shakespeare has included the historical and incorporated the biblical references in the speeches of this play. Examples such as the story of Jacob and his sheep from the Book of Genesis Chapter 30 quoted by Shylock to justify his way of doing business.

Typically, all of the Jews in Europe experienced a lot of discrimination from Christians during the Middle Ages because of their different appearances, lifestyles, laws and their religion. Shakespeare wrote this play for the Christian audience during the Elizabethan times. They were very prejudiced towards religions that were not pure Christian and would have hated the Jews because they had supposedly “murdered” Jesus Christ. Additionally, in reference to the mythological story of the “Wondering Jew” who was condemned to an everlasting life of misery, had developed an evil character who was believed to kidnap and murder Christian children.

This is a personification of exile and Christian condemnation of the Jewish people. Because of this Christians would also have a sense of xenophobia because they feared that Jews would take their land and their wealth from them. During the sixteenth century, the victimised Jews would be forced to live in dreaded isolated areas called “ghettos” by anti-Semitic leaders such as Martin Luther who was “possessed by the devil” said the Vatican chief’s exorcist. The ghettos were often densely populated and many Jews died of hunger and disease because of poverty and social restrictions.

Throughout history, many rulers, empires and nations have oppressed their Jewish populations or have attempted to eradicate them entirely such as the Holocaust during World War II when Hitler forced the Jews into concentration camps and executed them one by one.

Ultimately, the contents of this play are comedy, love and betrayal, meaning that it fulfils the audience at the time by condemning and/or serving justice to the evil characters (Shylock is the villain in this case) and the good characters are successful (which in this case is Antonio) and the audiences’ reaction to Shylock would be stereotypical and would have classified him as just another Jew.

Shylock is first introduced in the third scene of act one. His appearance was hardly noticeable and his entrance was slightly delayed. As a result of this there was great anticipation leading up to his eventual appearance.

His first confrontation was with Bassanio who arranges an agreement in which he can borrow some money from Shylock. Shylock’s attitude towards Bassanio is sincere but cautious. He says he will do business with him and negotiate with him but he will not eat with him. He declines the invitation due to the fact that he hates Christians and he cannot eat pork because of his religion.

Bassanio: If it please you to dine with us –

Shylock: …I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you…

Here, Shylock explains that he cannot participate in any activities with a Christian that concerns breaking his religion’s boundaries.

Shylock is later confronted by Antonio who he has had past dealings of discrimination and business with before, as a result their emotions are sharply concealed with one another. In the play, Shylock speaks to the audience aside and insults Antonio.

Shylock [Aside] : …How like a fawning publican he looks!

I hate him for he is a Christian; …

Here, Shylock angrily expresses his hatred for Antonio and the religion of Christianity. Antonio is in fact annoyed because all he wants is to borrow the money and have nothing to do with Shylock’s disturbed emotions (which have been supposedly put aside, although Shylock does not see it this way). Typically, up to the point where he says he hates him because he is a Jew it is imaginable that you can see the Elizabethan audiences mocking, booing and perhaps throwing things at him because of the austerity of their religion against others.

Shylock later begins to provoke Antonio for his personal differences between them into charging interest in the loan. But Antonio mentions that friends should not take advantage of each other by charging interest. They finally agree to the bond but Shylock will allow it only under one condition.

Shylock: …If you repay me not on such a day,

In such a place, such sum or sums as are

Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Antonio: Content, in faith! I’ll seal to such a bond,

And say there is much kindness in the Jew.

Here, Shylock offers “a fair trade” if his money was not returned to him in the time he wished then for an action sanctioned by a lawyer he can be allowed to cut off any part of Antonio’s body (presumably the heart!). Antonio agrees and promises to return the money in good time. The typical Elizabethan audiences’ reaction towards this would have been to object and they would mentally view him as the devil himself for taking a part of a Christian’s body.

Back in the sixteenth century, the Elizabethan audiences would not have paid attention to Shylock’s qualities which he does have in fact; he works hard for his money, he’s pious and because he knows so much about the Jewish Bible can quote from it as he did with his first scene with Antonio about Jacob looking after his Uncle Laban’s sheep. This indicates that Shylock is a well educated man. Additionally, he is a loyal man because the ring he had for Jessica was given away for monkeys and he says he would not give up that ring under any circumstances; this shows that he is not simply acquisitive but that he has a heart.

Later on in the play, Shylock meets with Solanio and Salarino who are faithful friends of Antonio and Bassanio who discuss rumours of Antonio’s wrecked ships. Once Shylock entered, he confronted them about their knowledge of his daughter’s fleeing from his house; Solanio and Salarino taunt him about her elopement with a Christian man (Lorenzo) and mock him for his losses. This quarrel eventually leads up to Shylock’s cold-blooded speech about the equilibrium of humanity between religions and his “devilish” intentions. He firstly mentions that the purpose of the bond is to get his long waited revenge on Antonio and goes on about how he was racist to him in the past and why he gives no adequate reason for this. Shylock increases the tempo and depth of his speech by emphasising the similarities between the religions.

Shylock: …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 as a

Christian is? …

Here, Shylock tries to cry out a reason towards Solanio and Salarino about why the Jews do not feel the same way as Christians do in environmental situations and if they should be judged in a different way.

Additionally, his speech is further heightened by the references towards death to create suspense.

continued : …If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not

laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us,

shall we not revenge? …

Here, Shylock questions Solanio and Salarino (and quite possibly anyone else who are listening from the streets). Are the Jews not as emotional or as physical as the Christians? Are they dead inside? Have they no heart? Are they not approved to obtain revenge? Typically this speech was designed to induce the audience’s sympathy for Jews and Shylock especially.

Throughout the whole speech Shylock mentions his strong feelings about the persistence of revenge and if Christians can have revenge so can the Jews, if the laws of the Jews are fair, so should the Christian laws be; this is an added emphasis on how Jews are treated by Christians and how the equilibrium between Christianity and Judaism is further deteriorating.

Shylock obviously sees himself as a symbol of his persecuted race and therefore he intends to take revenge for the humiliation and disgrace he has suffered at the hands of the Christian law.

Throughout the course of the play, Shylock lives in depression and anger after he noticed that his daughter, Jessica stole his money and fled with Lorenzo. Shylock is seen as a villain, towards his treatment of Jessica because during his interaction with her in his house, he bosses her around, telling her to look after the interests of his house and is oblivious about the state of her emotions.

Shylock: …To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;

But stop my house’s ears – I mean my casements

Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter

My sober house…

Here, Shylock tells Jessica to stay in the house and it seems intentional to keep her from the outside world as the lead up to this “imprisonment” is indicated earlier on in act two, scene three where Jessica says “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so. Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil didst rob it of some taste of tediousness…”

Speaking the line, “Our house is hell”, she explains that she is restricted to social activities and this makes her feel irritated that she is constrained in this boredom.

Indicating the line from the speech above from which he says “But stop my house’s ears” suggests that Shylock does not like music of any kind which in reference to the Middle Ages, all Christians loved music and all sorts of entertainment whereas Jews did not. This also points out a fact that Shylock is unsociable.

Furthermore, when news of Antonio’s ships failed, Shylock became confident that his bond with Antonio would be broken and he can act his revenge upon him. Shylock’s behaviour is unusually na�ve because he believes that he can win over the Christians and when the Venetian law is intended to serve the welfare of Christians.

Failing to pay Shylock back, Antonio is arrested and sent to court in which to decide his fate with Shylock holding the blade.

The trial scene at the end is quite possibly the most powerful scene in the play because it displays the betrayal of law that grants Shylock the right to cast revenge and the superiority between Christianity and Judaism. Antonio is greeted by the Duke of Venice who shows pity for him and discriminates against Shylock by saying that he can neither express pity nor mercy. The Duke addresses them both and the reasons for the forfeit of the bond are explained by Shylock when his only intentions are to make Antonio pay for he hates him is good a reason as any other therefore the Duke proceeds and introduces the lawyer’s clerk who is Nerissa in disguise and Portia who is disguised as Doctor Balthazar.

During the first half of the session, the law was on Shylock’s side as he also appears triumphant and remorseless. Shylock only explains that he wants to “own” Antonio by taking a part of his flesh and that his revenge is served. Bassanio who arrives within the hour, immediately offers Shylock six thousand ducats, twice the amount of the original finance but Shylock declines the offer and only says that he would not give in to money only to dish his revenge out on Antonio. Strictly speaking, Venetian society is made an accomplice to Shylock’s devilish intentions, and since this support does not pardon him, it can have the inevitable result of bringing everyone else down to his level and he only wants his needs to be regarded with respect like everyone else’s.

As the proceedings went on, Portia reveals her courtroom speech about the quality of mercy:

Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; …

Here, Portia says that Shylock shall have all justice and gives him the right to choose whether or not he wants or does not want to proceed with the punishment. Further on, Portia introduces images of royal power to indicate that the power of God goes above all and those who have mercy are like God himself.

continued : …Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty, …

But Shylock on the other hand is simply determined to exact his revenge upon Antonio without any offerings that may cause him to stop this.

The ideas of mercy displayed here are interesting because what Portia has mentioned here is a relativist view about mercy; Christians should “turn the other cheek” (from the New Testament) instead of doing the same to the adversary but Shylock has an absolutist view of justice which is clearly “an eye for an eye” that is derived from the Old Testament.

During the moment in which Shylock draws the blade, Portia startles Shylock by stating another rule and does not permit Shylock to withdraw from the agreement. She says that a penalty is included if blood is spilt. In a way, she has twisted the law with superior reasoning; additionally she reads the letter of law and states that he must be executed if he took more or less than a pound of flesh. Shylock painfully admits that he cannot carry it out and is crushed by the legal punishment unless the Duke showed mercy and the fact that he had lost his money to his daughter’s Christian husband, Lorenzo.

On top of that, Antonio is released and inflicts an overly harsh punishment forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity. Ultimately, he holds his faith and his life is spared but he would rather be dead because his money is distributed among his “enemies” and his revenge is wasted therefore he has not much to live for. This creates a very sympathetic emotion from the audience towards Shylock despite his lust for revenge.

To conclude, I believe that Shylock is a victim because despite the fact that he treats his daughter callously he is constantly bogged down with disrespect from the outside world which demoralises him. Although he lets his lust of vengeance overwhelm the other aspects of his life, he still possesses some heart towards others that are kind to him. That in particular encourages me to feel sympathetic towards Shylock because he may never receive a fair hearing about him since everywhere he goes he is continuously ridiculed and spat on by Christians.

To some extent, I believe that Shakespeare had intended to portray him as a victim also since the character was meant to undertake the Christian law and society of the Elizabethan age and confront some certain prejudice and intolerance. Furthermore, Shakespeare had also included a vast element of a wicked character in Shylock, representing the immorality of Jews therefore making the play in favour of the Christian audience.

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Is Shylock a villain or victim in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Essay. (2017, Oct 27). Retrieved from

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