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Shylock - Victim or Villain - What is your assessment of the presentation of the character and role of Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice'

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Introduction

Shylock: Victim or Villain What is your assessment of the presentation of the character and role of Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice'? Victim or villain. These two words are the total opposites of each other. A victim is someone that 'we' in general should, or may, feel sorry for and attempt to sympathise or empathise with. But a villain is the one person that people love to hate. The best example of this I feel is pantomime. The victims or heroes are clear-cut and the audience willingly cheers them. But as soon as the villain walks on stage he is hissed and booed, unfortunately it is not as simple as this in 'The Merchant of Venice' and how the audience react to the characters is all important in making the distinction between victim or villain. Although the title of the play: 'The Merchant of Venice', implies Antonio is the central character, I think that Shylock is the most important, often when he is off-stage, in the words and actions of others. There is still a debate over whether Shylock is wholly villainous, or whether his circumstances and life force him to a certain extent in his actions. This difference in interpretations can be highlighted in the way audiences would have reacted when the play was written, and how this compares to a more modern insight into the play. In particular, this reaction to Shylock is pivotal to the big question, victim or villain. In Elizabethan times, Shylock would have been portrayed as a villain through-and-through. When he tells the audience how he has been treated, spat upon, and how the Christians insult him, calling him, "cut-throat dog" and "cur", there would be no sympathy for him; on the contrary the audience may well have thought that this was a good and correct way to treat a non-Christian. Had this question been asked when the high level of anti-Semitism prevailed the answer would have been a simple, 'villain' mainly for Shylock's faith and usury, frowned upon in Venetian society. ...read more.

Middle

The reason Shylock seems to care a lot more about his money and possessions than his daughter is the fact that when the Christians are quoting him, he has made many, many more references to his financial loss than to his personal and family loss. The Christians would obviously have thought this is not a right way of thinking and so called him a "dog Jew" and I think that at this point in the play Shylock is indeed acting extremely villainously. I personally think family relations are worth more than any money could pay for, and my opinion is if Shylock was truly a victim, surely he would care about his family, especially his own daughter. As the two Christians talk about Shylock the question of the bond arises. Neither seems to have any doubt that if Antonio does not keep his bond Shylock will have no hesitation in claiming his pound of flesh. Solanio even says, "Let good Antonio keep his day / Or he shall pay for this", with the emphasis on the word "good". Salerio also thinks very highly of Antonio, saying of him, "A kinder gentleman treads not the earth", and at this point in the play I think the two main characters, Antonio and Shylock, have moved in different directions in the way they are portrayed. Earlier on the play it is not clear who is the villain and who the victim, Antonio even admits all he had done to wrong Shylock. But here I think there can be no doubt that the view and projection of Antonio as a character has changed to make him an extremely good man. Conversely, any sympathy available for Shylock is not possible here because it has been quite clearly proved already that he is a villain, because of what has happened. This is later enforced in the scene where Shylock explains why he will take the bond. ...read more.

Conclusion

Shylock clung to his faith for support, and was very patriotic, to the extent he was almost a fanatic of Judaism, and this decision would surely have seemed worse than death to him. This is certainly what Shylock thought as he says, "Nay, take my life and all" when he hears the sentence. Also, to a lesser extent, the decision that he should pay for Jessica is also very harsh. Shylock has already grieved for her, and is ready to move on but now has been forced to think about her again, and to think about his old religion even more. In conclusion, I can see that Shylock has been victimised throughout his life. This discrimination can explain many things that he has done throughout this play and, therefore, I think that up until the elopement of Jessica, Shylock is a victim - a victim of prejudice, a victim of his circumstances, and a victim of his peers. Jessica's elopement with a Christian is a major turning point in the play, with, I think, a noticeable change in the way Shylock regards Christians. Before this event, I believe Shylock was attempting to peacefully co-exist with the Christians, and tried to make life easier by lending money without usury. But, after the elopement, Shylock can be seen to be definitely more villainous, it is very clear, not ambiguous. Up until the trial scene he is a proper villain, the genuine article who would have been hated by everyone, he had no support. But, I think that the judgement by the Christians was wrong. They had been so sure that they were for justice, but the truth is, when they forced him to change his religion they were not being Christian, they had sunk to his level. This can be confirmed in a sentence by saying, Shylock is a villain, but to a certain extent this villainy can be understood because of the actions of others towards him. He is a villain, because he has been victimised. 26/04/2007 Page 1 Jonathan Fulwell 10W ...read more.

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