‘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.
Shylock had become hysterical. “I never heard a passion so confused”. As a result he has been made a public figure of fun, taunted by the boys of Venice as he wanders the streets, searching for his daughter. The way it is reported to the audience, is one that reinforces the Jewish stereotype: that he would value his money more than his daughter. Throughout this part of the scene, Shylock is never referred to by name, merely as “the dog Jew” or “the villain Jew” which is dismissive. The scene now looks forward to the parting of Antonio and Bassanio, as the two of them are separated. The reference to how deep the love is between them, “…and with affection wondrous sensible he wrung Bassanio’s hand, and so they parted. I think he only loves the world for him.”, was added to lighten the mood, and to try to lift the doubt that has been set in the audience’s mind after learning that a shipwreck has occurred “in the Narrow Seas”. This increases the dramatic tension, because if the ship belongs to Antonio then he will not be able to pay for the bond. This is especially worrying, as with Shylock raging for his lost daughter and money, he will have no qualms about exacting the penalty of a pound of flesh. This scene was used, I think, to create more of a contrast between the Jews and the Christians, and to increase the audience’s dislike of Shylock. However, although Solanio and Salarino are trying to make Shylock look even more like a villain, the way they make fun of his loss and his grief, make him seem to me more a victim than ever.
In Act 3 Scene 1, where Shylock next appears, his true character shows through most clearly. At the beginning, Solanio and Salarino confirm, that it was indeed one of Antonio’s vessels that was wrecked in the English Channel, and that they are concerned for him. When Shylock enters, the two men immediately begin to taunt and bait him, “How now, Shylock, what news among the merchants?”. First they try to get him to react to Jessica’s flight, “I for my part knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal,”. Then they press him on the fact that he appears to have lost his investment in Antonio’s ship, not realising that it is really the pound of flesh he desires, “It will feed my revenge.”. Knowing that Shylock is feeling vulnerable, they persistently harass him until he loses his temper. When Shylock does react, the duo get a lot more than they had bargained for. Beforehand Shylock’s obsession with his bond has been showing through, underlining his thirst for Antonio’s blood. He says repeatedly, “Let him look to his bond.”. When Shylock can stand it no longer, he makes one of the most famous speeches in the entire play, beginning “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” It is a speech that, to an Elizabethan audience, would have been years ahead of its time, looking at racism from an almost modern perspective. The effect was that although Solanio and Salarino managed to achieve what they had wanted in provoking Shylock, they actually ended up looking like fools, with Shylock as the more powerful character.
When the pair leave, it is the signal for Shylock’s associate, Tubal, to enter, bringing yet more bad news. After searching for news of Jessica, Tubal returns with what he has found, “I often came where I did hear of her, but cannot find her.” The way Shylock reacts to these tidings is to curse Jessica, “I would my daughter were dead at my feet”, and mourn the loss of his money and jewels, rather than her flight. I think that this is mainly because Shylock is still coming to terms with Jessica’s betrayal and his mind is in a state of turmoil. Another reason however, could be that with the blow to his pride and the way he sees money as equal to status, he is covering up the hurt he feels inside by trying to give the impression to his fellow Jews that it is the money that is the greater loss. Tubal is an interesting character because you cannot tell whether he is on Shylock’s side or not. Throughout the conversation he appears slightly two-faced, sometimes coming out with a piece of good news, “other men have ill luck too. Antonio as I heard…”, at which Shylock becomes jubilant, “I thank thee, good Tubal: good news … ha ha”, and sometimes being very spiteful, “Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night four score ducats.” Which instantly depresses Shylock again, “Thou stick’st a dagger in me”.
This scene initially shows Shylock as victim, owing to Salarino and Solanio’s taunts. This is emphasised by Tubal’s snide comments, more surprisingly as he is also a Jew. However the villainous aspect of Shylock’s character also emerges. His words reveal his deep hatred of Antonio and the reason for them, “I will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will,”.
After it is found that all of Antonio’s ships have been wrecked, taking with them the means to repay Shylock, Antonio is taken to a prison to await trial. By way of the jailor, Antonio has managed to arrange a meeting with Shylock in the street, in the hope of reasoning with him, “I pray thee hear me speak”. Shylock of course is on the defensive, and as he believes that attack is the best form of defence, he is lashing out at any attempt of Antonio’s to reason with him, “I will not hear thee speak” in order to hide the vulnerability that he is feeling inside.
In Solanio’s words, Shylock is an ‘impenetrable cur’ and will not be moved from his resolution to have his pound of flesh. “His reason well I know: I oft delivered from his forfeitures many that have at times made moan to me; therefore he hates me.” This scene really sets out, the reasons why Shylock has such a hatred of Antonio. At this point, an Elizabethan audience would really see Antonio as ‘the suffering martyr’ and would support him for his goodness and his bravery coupled with dry humour in the face of death, “These griefs and losses have so baited me that I shall hardly spare a pound of flesh tomorrow to my bloody creditor.” The reason that both Shylock and Antonio are so sure that the Jew will win his case is because in Venice, justice comes above even the Doge (or Duke) and that it is not prejudiced towards the many different races that flock to the City. “The Duke cannot deny the law… since that the trade and profit of the City consisteth of all nations.” So even though Shylock’s fixation on his bond is outwardly very villainous indeed, he is just trying to carry out the law, and his attitude is due to him being victimised in the past.
Set in the courtroom of the Duke’s palace in Venice, Act 4 scene 1 is the longest and most complex scene in the play. It brings together all the different characters and stories that have been developing throughout the play. Before Shylock has even entered the court, there is prejudice forming against him from the Duke and the friends of Antonio. “Thou art come to answer a stoney adversary, an inhuman wretch.” This should not have been allowed to happen as not even the Duke can go against the law and his judgement is supposed to be unbiased. “I do oppose my patience with his fury and am armed to suffer with a quietness of spirit.” Again Antonio is ingratiating himself with the audience and the people around him, in his portrayal of ‘the goodly Christian’. Whether or not he is sincere, it is hard to tell, but I am of the opinion that he is not as virtuous as we are led to believe, trying to get more support for his cause. This means that the people around him, as well as the audience, are bound to see Shylock as even more of a villain than they would in other circumstances.
When Shylock does enter the courtroom, the Duke immediately begins to patronize him, “I think so too, that thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice to the last hour of act” giving the Jew a chance to drop the charges against Antonio, releasing him from the bond. This is the Duke’s way of saying, ‘all right Shylock, you’ve made your point, now let Antonio go and we’ll say no more on the matter’ but as he had said a moment before, Shylock is “Uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy” and so will not be swayed from his decision, and even if he did, it would be admitting that the Christians have won, which he would never do. The Duke then goes on to say, insensitively, “Glancing an eye on his losses that have of late so huddled on his back” not sparing a thought for the fact that Shylock too, has recently lost money and jewels. Here, although feeling sorry for Shylock as the victim of the Christians words, I feel repelled by the answer he gives to the Duke, “You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have a weight of carrion flesh than to receive three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that – but say it is my humour.” Also, if he just gives in, his pride will be damaged, and it goes against his instincts to just allow the Christians total victory. Antonio at this point, has realised that it is fruitless to try and change Shylock’s mind, “You may as well do anything most hard as seek to soften that ….his Jewish heart” and does not want to satisfy Shylock by begging. Even when Bassanio offers the Jew six thousand ducats instead of three, Shylock replies that if the six thousand ducats were multiplied by six, he would still have his bond. Shylock also compares his bond with slavery, saying that if he told all those gathered there to “Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!” that they would not, saying only that “The slaves are ours.”. His point is that he has bought the bond, and it belongs to him, so why should their words make him give it up, arguing that “If you deny me, fie upon your law … I stand for judgement” and that to deny him the bond would be breaking the law and going against all Venetian principles. So essentially, Shylock sees the advantages of hiding behind the law, which could be interpreted as the action of both a villain and a victim, but to me it is merely a tactical decision.
The Duke decides that, unless a doctor that he has sent for to determine the matter comes, then he will dismiss the court. Nerissa, dressed as a lawyers’ clerk, then enters, bringing with her letters from Bellario. While the Duke reads these letters, Shylock, so confident of winning his case, is sharpening his knife in anticipation. This is a very threatening gesture, and to do that in the middle of the courtroom, in front of all those people, he must have known that with the law on his side, there was no way that he could lose. Gratiano especially takes great offence at this, and asks in anger and desperation “Can no prayers pierce thee?” Shylock’s calm and collected reply, “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make” is unpleasant.
Portia, in the guise of the lawyer Balthazar, then asks that Shylock be merciful, but is silenced by Shylock’s “On what compulsion must I?”. Her silence however is short-lived and she immediately launches into her famous speech, beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained,” This speech, for Shylock, is the ultimate test of character and draws heavily on what Portia sees to be the values of Christianity. She tells how “Mercy is above this sceptred sway” meaning that mercy is a God-given gift, rather than the privilege of kings, and that we are most like God when we are being merciful, “It is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.” Although this is a highly compassionate speech, it falls on deaf ears, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond”, which has an echo of the trial of Jesus Christ. When Shylock says the line, “An oath, an oath. I have an oath in heaven! Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? No, not for Venice” he is bound to be seen as either victim or villain by different people, as to break an oath to heaven would be perjury, but might also be seen as an excuse. Shylock continues to show the villainous side of his character throughout the scene, saying such things as, “By my soul I swear there is no power in the tongue of man to alter me”. Also, from the moment Portia has arrived in the courtroom, she has given Shylock the opportunity to be merciful, “Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge, to stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.” but every time Shylock has thrown it back in her face, “I cannot find it, ‘tis not in the bond” always, completely fixated on the bond.
“Tarry a little…” just as Shylock’s knife is about to enter Antonio’s chest, Portia comes out with her master-stroke. In the bond there is no clause that allows, in the taking of the forfeit, the spilling of any of Antonio’s blood. At this, Shylock suddenly becomes quite afraid as he sees that his case is failing, and we begin to see the stronger side of Portia, and the cruelty with which she intends to thwart Shylock, “Thou shalt have justice more than thou desirest.” Shylock realises that he must renounce his claim, but Portia uses his own words against him, pushing him so that he loses both his revenge and the money “Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture, to be so taken at thy peril, Jew” From a gloating man, triumphant in the prospects of revenge, Portia has stripped Shylock of all he hoped to gain, and still she is not satisfied. Finally, Shylock is forced to become a Christian. This is the worst possible thing that could happen to Shylock. Even though Antonio’s action is supposedly ‘merciful’ I don’t think he realises that he has just destroyed the very essence of who Shylock is. Now, not only his daughter and much of his money have been taken from him, but his religion and his pride. When he utters the words “I am content” I feel so much sympathy for him as a victim, and he leaves the courtroom humiliated, a broken man.
The difference between the views of a 16th century audience and a 21st century audience is that first and foremost, we in the 21st century have had the opportunity to read and study the script, whereas in Elizabethan times, the audience would have been swung first one way then the other as the plot unfolded. Nowadays we also have very different views on how to behave, for example, racial prejudice is recognized and controlled by law, unlike then, where it was acceptable for people to make racist comments. Portia herself openly says of Morocco “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. From a 16th century audience’s point of view, not much would actually be known about other races, therefore Shylock as an outsider, would be seen as more of a villain. Overall I think that Shakespeare intended Shylock to be seen as a villain, because he knew that that was what would please his audience, but he has written a complex character, that is bound to raise questions from the more thoughtful members of any audience, for instance, when Antonio sentences him to become a Christian, he knows that Shylock will no longer belong to the Jewish community, but will never be able to belong to the Christian community either – a ‘paper’ Christian. What is interesting is that those who compel him to conform, in this case Portia and Antonio, are as much ‘paper’ Christians as he is, for example, in her long speech, Portia talks at length of the quality of mercy, yet when she might have shown mercy to Shylock, she carried on, until she had taken from him all he held dear. In my opinion, I believe that it is impossible to separate ‘victim’ and ‘villain’ as they are not opposites. They overlap, and so I cannot define the character of Shylock as one or the other, as there is evidence of both, although I think that is what Shakespeare himself was thinking when he wrote the part.