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Shylock: Victim or Villain?

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Introduction

Shylock: Victim or Villain? In Elizabethan England, it seems the Jewish race had been almost completely shunned and abolished. They were expected to be hated; considered a form of human far lower than that of a Christian. This wasn't questioned, and wouldn't be considered overly important anyway as the vast majority of the population would never have come across a living Jew. They knew about them only from the Bible, from old stories and hanDed down accounts, which would establish Jews as villains. For the most part of 'The Merchant of Venice', Shylock can be perceived in the same way but, there are many points in the play when it's debatable that Shakespeare intended him to be. Shylock isn't the Elizabethan stereotype of a Jew, although he's spiteful, materialistic and deceitful he's also intelligent and fair, and his deficiencies are often shared or have been motivated by the Christian characters mistreatment of him and his faith. The audiences of Shakespeare's time would expect Shylock to be a malicious character as soon as they're warned that he's Jewish, and the Christians on stage reciprocate this feeling by referring to him simply as 'the Jew' or 'the villain Jew'. They don't like to differentiate between the Jewish race by naming them - as though they share a single persona. The main reason that the Christians are thought to be so anti-Semitic in the first place is because they held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. ...read more.

Middle

Perhaps it's partially out of kindness that Shylock doesn't force Antonio to break from his religion by allowing him interest; 'take no doit of usance for my moneys' but I think it's simply because Shylock's desire for vengeance is stronger than his desire for money; 'catch him once upon the hip'. What - the majority of audiences would agree - should be a higher priority than this, is his attachment to his daughter Jessica, but when she elopes and converts to Christianity it's unclear which he misses more; 'Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!' Throughout the play Shylock has a kind of faith in the law, he makes sure everything concerning his bond, in particular is official and correct, so all the spiteful things he did were done fairly; he played by the Christian's rules. Here, though, if he is only referring to the fact that 'justice' should grant him the return of his money then I'd consider him villainous for valuing material over his daughter. I think instead he means that he expects Jessica to be returned to him by law, in the same way as if she were another of his possessions. While it is of course a different time period where this would be considered more valid, I think he likes having control and power over people in a culture where he is allowed so little. ...read more.

Conclusion

Antonio doesn't think to apologise for the way he treated Shylock, even now he's seen the consequences of his actions, so although he seems the victim here and Shylock the villain, perhaps on some level, Antonio thinks he deserves his punishment. The situation is quite similar to the crucifixion of Christ, in the past Jews have been persecuted for their association with these circumstances, and it's unlikely Shylock was any exception to this. I feel he's attempting to do what he's been unfairly blamed for - the murder of a Christian. While I don't feel this makes his intentions justified, I think it makes them more reasonable; I don't blame him reacting the way he did. I don't think Shakespeare intended for Shylock to be interpreted as a villain, because although Shylock's retaliation to Antonio's maltreatment is quite callous, the way that he executed it was, on the whole, honest. In the sense that Antonio was aware of what he was getting himself into, and because of the emotion and dedication Shylock displayed towards attaining acceptance and equality. I think that having a variation of viewpoints in the play, makes what would have been a near anarchistic idea - for the audience Shakespeare expected to see it - more palatable. Shylock is continuously abused and belittled throughout the play, particularly in his last appearance where he's left completely broken and depleted, so while I don't consider Shylock completely innocent, ultimately I consider him a victim. ...read more.

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