The Merchant of Venice Coursework Essay - Shylock; Victim or Villain

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‘The Merchant of Venice’ Coursework Essay

Shylock; Victim or Villain

On the first reading of Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the character of Shylock the Jew seemed to me to be that of a villain.  Because it is a play, an audience in Shakespeare’s time may well have thought the same and, indeed, may have been expected to do so.  The reason for this is that Elizabethan audiences expected to be shown stereotypes and it is down to the skill of the dramatist to keep them guessing.  As the play unfolds, the character of Shylock develops so that he can also be seen, by more discerning audiences, as a victim.  Exploring this contrast between the two views is something I find very interesting.  Throughout that part of the play in which he features, Shylock gives us many opportunities to see different aspects of the character that Shakespeare portrays, as I intend to show.

“Three thousand ducats.”  From Shylock’s first words, Shakespeare shows him to be focussed on his job as a moneylender, which was one of the very few professions that Jewish men could have had in a Christian city.  From the very beginning, an Elizabethan audience would have seen Shylock as a business man, driven by the unwavering desire for profit at the expense of the Christians whom he despises.  When Bassanio comes to take out a loan in Antonio’s name, Shylock shows immediately that he will grant it “I think I will take his bond.” , but not for the reasons he gives to Bassanio.  Although the Jew pretends friendship to the pair, “I would be friends with you, and have your love,” he is all the while plotting some way of ridding himself of Antonio, who, besides being a Christian, is a personal enemy of Shylock, “How like a fawning publican he looks!”  I hate him for he is a Christian.”  This hatred, however, is not without a past.  Shylock tells the audience how, by Antonio’s actions, his profits as a moneylender have been damaged, “He lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance.”, and of how he has suffered on account of Antonio’s harsh words, “You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine.”  So even though Shylock’s villainous side is on view, his hatred is not entirely without reason and with a thirst for vengeance such as his, you can see why he would feel the need for revenge. Shylock’s apparent good humour lulls the two gentlemen into a false sense of security, so that when he insists on charging no interest, Antonio at least is not suspicious.  Instead Shylock jokes with the pair saying that “If you repay me not on such a day ….. let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your fair flesh.”  Even though his blood-thirsty bond shows Shylock to be both cruel and vindictive, I think that Antonio’s past actions are some justification for Shylock’s attitude.

Before Shylock leaves his house to attend Bassanio’s dinner party, he seems ill at ease.  He calls for his daughter, Jessica, with strict instructions over her duties and her behaviour during his absence.  Shylock seems unsure whether he should attend the supper, for he fears that in his absence something awful will happen, “There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest, for I did dream of money bags tonight.”, nevertheless he decides to go.  The situation is made worse when Lancelot, who has recently left his job as Shylock’s servant and has no reason to be afraid of him anymore, starts teasing the Jew about his premonitions and his wariness about leaving the house.  It seems to me that Shylock leaving the house of an evening is a rare occurrence.  “Hear you me Jessica, lock up my doors.”  Shylock’s obsession over every single detail shows his protectiveness of both his money and his daughter.  Although this makes him seem very miserly, his reasons are understandable. As without his money he has no security nor any means of maintaining his social status.  Shylock’s attitude towards Jessica can be seen as either cruelty or over-protectiveness.  I think it is the latter, mainly because in those days, it would be normal for a Jewish father with a daughter of marriageable age.  On reading the play we can assume, because Jessica is the one managing the house and the fact that there is no reference to her mother being there, that she has had only her father’s attitude to relate to. In his turn Shylock would have had only the role-model of a traditional Jewish father to guide him.  When he hears about the masque, Shylock immediately instructs Jessica to “Stop my house’s ears ….. let not the sound of shallow foppery enter” and not to “… thrust your head into the public street to gaze on Christian fools” demonstrating his knowledge of how drunken young men might behave.  Shylock’s concerns however, are wasted on Jessica, who later that night plans to elope with Lorenzo, taking most of Shylock’s money with her “O Lorenzo ….. I shall end this strife, become a Christian and thy loving wife.”  This dramatic irony may have proved entertaining to an Elizabethan audience, but it is really one of the worst things to happen to Shylock.

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To my mind, Act 2 Scene 8, where Shylock realises that Jessica has not only eloped, but taken a great deal of his money as well, seems to be one of the most tragic scenes in the play.  This, however, is not its main purpose.  In this scene the plot is moved forward, and the device used is two unimportant people, like a Greek chorus, telling us what has happened.  The famous speech, “My daughter!  O my ducats!” that is reported by Salarino and Solanio, serves to deflate Shylock’s character, that had dominated the play before.  


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