What is your assessment of the presentation of the character and role of Shylock in 'The Merchant of Venice'?

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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'?

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.

In contrast to this however, modern attitudes to racism, in particular anti-Semitism, are different. All throughout history Jews have been persecuted, most recently in the Holocaust in Germany. I would think that many people today would be affected by this, that such persecution could happen just because people stood up for their faith. It is this view that makes 'The Merchant of Venice', and particularly Shylock, so complex and still extremely relevant to modern society.

Shylock is a Jew in a Christian city, isolated and vulnerable. This is a cause of great prejudice against Shylock and means his apparent villainy can begin to be understood. But, interpretation of Act 1:3 and the lines therein and underlying meanings accounts for many things. For example, when Bassanio invites Shylock to have a meal with them, "If it please you to dine with us", it can be read as a kind offer rejected by Shylock or ignorance of the Jewish faith, either unintentionally or intentionally to patronise and provoke Shylock. But one point in this very important scene, Act 1:3, is when Shylock recounts all he has suffered at the hands of the Christians, epitomised in Antonio. Shylock has "borne it with a patient shrug" and goes on to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the supposed gentleman, Bassanio and Antonio. The tale of how they have shunned him in public, when Shylock says "in the Rialto you have rated me", and physically abused him "[you] spit upon my Jewish gaberdine" and then to come to him for money shows a great deal of hypocrisy, and to a certain extent a lack of moral character.

Moreover, Antonio confirms all of these actions towards Shylock when he declares, "I am as like to call thee so again", he is being honest, brutally honest. Here the 'flesh clause' is introduced and a reader or member of the audience must decide whether this a genuine, improvised idea, meaning the bond is indeed a "merry sport" or whether Shylock is happy to mount a serious attempt on Antonio's life. But of what use is a pound of flesh? Surely Shylock is attempting to be amiable here but it is more submissive than friendly, as he is trying not to cause any more trouble. This leads to an excellent example of Antonio's attitude to Shylock, with the pun on the words "gentle Jew". He is meaning to pay Shylock a compliment this way, but ultimately this shows how prejudice plays a very important role in this play.

This theme of prejudice is completely relevant to Shylock, but is extremely predominant through the play. It is this underlying sense of racism that gives an impression that Shakespeare's idea of Shylock is that of a villain. This society of 'nobles' in Venice seems utterly executive and exclusive. Jews are not accepted, shown when Shylock is referred to as a "faithless Jew". Indeed anyone deemed too poor; too rich or anyone who seemed to have any faults were also excluded. Portia proves this as well. Generally, Portia and Shylock are unconnected apart from the trial scene, but her prejudice against the Prince of Morocco, when he fails to win Portia's hand in marriage "Let all of his complexion choose me so" is clear. Just an off-hand remark, but clearly showing the attitude towards difference, whether it be people or ideas, that the sixteenth century bourgeoisie obviously had firm belief in.
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In a stark contrast of interpretation, many things Shylock does in Act 1:3 show him to be extremely villainous. Shylock seems to bear a deep personal and racial grudge against Antonio. He says in an aside, not to Bassanio and the recently entered Antonio, "I hate him for he is a Christian", and this shows his true feelings for Antonio, of deep insults he has made to his "tribe". But, when questioned by the Christians, Shylock avoids saying this, pretending he was thinking of his "present store" and not of his feelings towards Antonio.

The aside that ...

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