''Shylock, albeit I never lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess,
Yet, to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I’ll break a custom.''
Antonio’s speech here (Act I, scene iii) shows Antonio’s attitude to usury. Since Antonio is presented as upright and honourable, the audience would have identified with his views. In contrast to this Shylock explains his view on lending money for profit by quoting from the Bible. Antonio immediately condemns Shylock, saying “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.
Shylock is presented as a villain and a hypocrite right from the beginning of the play. In Act I, scene ii, his asides show what he really thinks, demonstrating that he is a hypocrite, as he says the opposite to Antonio’s face. The two people who know Shylock best in the world, his daughter and his servant, both show their dislike of him. Jessica says that home is “hell” and that she is “ashamed to be my father’s child”, while in Act II scene ii, Lancelot Gobbo, his servant, describes Shylock as mean and “the very devil incarnate.” If these two people who know him well see him as wicked, then the audience is being invited to share their views. If his daughter and his servant who know him so well think badly of him, should we not do the same?
There is a theme in The Merchant of Venice of identifying Shylock as a devil, which would have had a greater impact in Elizabethan times than now. Throughout the play Shylock is represented by Shakespeare as the devil. Lancelot Gobbo identifies Shylock as “a kind of devil”, “the devil himself” and “the very devil incarnation”. Even Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, says that Shylock’s house is “hell”. The Christian’s also identify Shylock as a devil. Solanio says “the devil…in the likeness of a Jew” and Bossanio agrees with statement by calling Shylock a “cruel devil”. Shylock is also compared to the devil by Antonio, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose”. The Elizabethan audience would have been shocked by this as religion was taken very seriously in this era. By associating Shylock with the devil, Shakespeare has managed to portray him as a villain in the eyes of his audience.However, Shakespeare makes Shylock into a very human character and the audience often feels sympathetic towards him. Throughout the play Shylock has some key speeches which make us fell like he is a victim. Throughout the play the audience learns of Shylock’s encounters with Christians, that he was frequently spat upon, mocked and rejected. He was not seen as an equal in society. For instance in Act 1, Scene 3, when Shylock remembers things that Antonio has said to him:
“You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit on my Jewish gabardine…”
At several points in the play, Shylock says something which makes us feel sympathetic towards him, but straight after this change in feelings he usually says something which makes all pity vanish, and he’s presented as a villain once again. An example of this is found in Act 3, Scene 1. Solanio and Salarino are in a street when Shylock enters. Straight away they begin mocking him about Jessica leaving home, and this leads Shylock to say:
''I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons...''
In this speech Shylock is saying that he is the same as every other man and that he feels the same pain and needs the same food to stay alive. Shylock then continues to change our feelings about him, and we begin to recognise him as a victim. Then in his last sentence he says:
''The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.''
All pity has now gone, as he has just said that he wants revenge, and he’s only doing what the Christians have taught him. Although we no longer see him as a victim, he still cannot be seen as a total villain. He is only giving the Christians back what they have given him for a long a time, and we can understand his want for revenge knowing how much the Jews have been persecuted in Europe. Although Shakespeare has portrayed Shylock as a human, with flaws the same as everyone else, he is only referred to by name six times in the whole play. Most of the time he is referred to as “the Jew” or “the dog Jew”. Sometimes Shylock is not even given a human name and is simply called “dog”. He is being compared to an animal, and by doing this Shylock loses his dignity as a human being and is portrayed as a victim. The Christians in the play however are always referred to as “the Christian” or by their name. This gives the impression that the Christians are better than everyone else.The trial scene at the end of the play also shows this.Shylock has dared to try and shed a drop of Christian blood, and he is severely punished for this, with the loss of his religion, wealth and dignity.Although being a Jew was probably enough to portray Shylock as a villain, Shakespeare has also turned Shylock into a money lender.This profession was hated by many people as the Jews charged interest. His profession is extremely important to Shylock and money is usually at the top of his priorities. Shylock’s reasons for agreeing to the bond with Antonio become apparent in Act 1, Scene 3.
''I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis.''
We can see from this that although Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, it is more professional jealousy that drives Shylock to agree to the terms. Shylock knows that with Antonio gone his business will increase. In this scene the audience perhaps hates Shylock more because he is only interested in his wealth than because he is a Jew, and Shakespeare has portrayed him as a regular villain instead of a Jewish villain.The audience again sees the importance of Shylock’s wealth when his daughter elopes with most of his riches.
''My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!'' The use of Sheakespere's language can change the way we look at Shylock.
Although Shylock’s thoughts are of his daughter he seems more upset about the fact that his wealth has gone. I think that Shakespeare had meant Shylock to be portrayed as a villain in this scene. The audience can see how little attention Shylock gives to his daughter. They would also be glad to see Shylock, a person who has become rich off other people’s money, lose the two things that are most important to him. But Shylock also shows some human qualities in this scene. He shows emotion at his daughter’s disappearance and is sad at the loss of his wealth. We learn later in the play that Shylock used to be happy until his wife died. Jessica reminds him of his wife and so the audience can feel for Shylock in his pain at losing his daughter.
By the end of the play Shylock is ready to fulfil his bond. Despite the fact that his fortunes are tied up at sea, Antonio doesn’t show any reluctance in offering to lend money in his name for Bassanio. When Bassanio visits Shylock regarding a loan Shylock is at first reluctant to lend the money until he hears that it’s in Antonio’s name. When Antonio enters Shylock says, to himself,
‘Curs’d be my tribe
If I forgive him!’
Shylock knows that Antonio’s ships, and therefore his fortune are tied up at sea, and he is reluctant to lend the money. He brings up what happened in the Rialto,
‘Fair sir you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurn’d me such a day, another time
You call’d me dog: and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus the monies.’
Antonio doesn’t apologise for these remarks. Instead he says that he is likely to do it again. It is Antonio, not Shylock that first suggests a bond. When we realise that it was Antonio who suggested the bond we can realise Shylock’s reasons for wanting to fulfil his bond, it’s his legal chance to get revenge. I think that Shakespeare wants us to be on the Christian’s side as all the characters in the play are against Shylock, even his fellow Jew’s.Throughout the play Shylock is very careful with his money, as we can see when he tells Jessica to be careful when he goes out. It seems out of character for him to lend 3000 ducats, a large sum of money, to someone who most probably wouldn’t be able to give it back. It is Shylock’s lust for revenge that drives him to do this, and although revenge is usually a villainous quality we can also see the side of Shylock the victim. Antonio has spat on him and called him names and it seems only natural that Shylock would want revenge for this. It is because of the years of victimisation that the reader can feel for Shylock and his quest for revenge.
From the beginning of the trial scene we know that there’s no chance that Shylock is going to win his case, and it’s no surprise when he loses. Shylock loses everything of importance to him, his wealth, his daughter, his dignity and he is forced to convert to Christianity. Shakespeare knew that his audience would be happy seeing a villain falling. But despite the determination Shylock shows in fulfilling the bond, when he loses everything we can still feel sorry for him. Shylock is forced to change his religion and Shakespeare’s audience would have sympathised with this, as the play was performed only a few years after the reformation. During the reformation Christians were forced to change their denomination. The Christians had mocked him, and as he says
''The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction''.
During the trial, shylock loses the aufience's sympathy, by his words and his act of sharpening the knife on the sole of his shoe. Neither insults nor pleading spoil the enjoyment of his triumph and when sentence is given against Antonio he repeats the words of the bond with a lingering relish:
So says the bond doth it not, noble judge?
Nearest the heart those are the very words.''
Shylock demanded a strict observance of the law and it is this that precisely defeats him. Gratino exults over his downfall but the other characters in the court speak no unnessesary words and show no satisfaction until shylock shylock has left the court. Even then, conversation is formal, occupied only with thanks and payment. It does not obliterate the memory of Shylock's parting words:
''I pray you give me leave to go from hence:
I am not well.''
A snarl of frustrated wrath can deliver this line; or else it can be spoken with the anguish of a man who has lost everything. His daughter, his wealth, his religious freedom, and the engagement ring given to him by his wife.
After focusing on the play, I think that Shakespeare meant to portray Shylock as a villain overall, while still giving him some human qualities in order to make the audience think about why he is a victim too. He is not portrayed as a character totally without emotions. We can understand his need for revenge, and we can feel sympathy towards him as we are shown the reasons for him becoming a villain. However, today, in the post holocaust era we see Shylock as more of a victim, as we have more sympathy towards racial abuse and we live in a multi cultural society. The play is an important piece of literature as from it we can learn abut the Elizabethans’ attitudes to Jews and how they were regarded in that era as sub-human. Today, I think, we see more of the victim in Shylock than Shakespeare intended, because of our recent history and cultural influences.
But there are many instances in the play in which Shylock’s villainous side comes through and we cannot pity him. In almost every long piece of dialogue by Shylock there is a reference to money, showing that Shylock seems to care more about his money than anything else. When his daughter leaves home, stealing all his jewels and money she was left to protect, his first reaction is: ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!’ Although he first thinks of his daughter, thoughts about his money aren’t far behind, and he only seems concerned with his wealth being stolen and the fact that it’s a Christian she has chosen to run away with. Shylock saw Jessica as something that belonged to him and kept her in the house. When leaving for a dinner party he tells her to lock all the doors to keep his money safe, he doesn’t give a second thought about Jessica. When Jessica runs away Shylock doesn’t think about her reasons for running away. He is more interested in his material possessions. There is a lot of hate by both Shylock and the Christians during the course of the play. The different religions seem to have less to do with it than professional jealousy.
After carefully considering all the facts I personally feel shylock is indeed a victim not a villain. Although he feels hate towards the Christians, as he himself is persecuted in the play because of his religious status. Jews are the minority in Venice and Shylock faces daily struggles just to remain a successful business man, which is quite saddening. Shylock is such a complicated character to examine; he has many dimensions to explore. Unlike the other characters in the play he is three dimensional, and one cannot say he is greedy or mean because on the contrary Shakespeare portrays him as very human. I believe today's audience will see shylock through different eyes. I think of him as a 'real' person whose words and deeds are motivated by thoughts and feelings that we can discover from the play, and that we can understand when we have discovered them. We cannot think of Bassanio in this way. Yet in admiring Shakespeare's achievement in the creation of Shylock, we must beware of danger. Often when we know a person well and understand why he acts as he does we become sympathetic towards him. In the merchant of Venice we are further encouraged to sympathise with shylock also by the fact that other leading characters such as Bassanio do not compel our sympathies. Sympathy can give rise to affection and affection often temps to withhold moral judgement or at least be gentle in our censure. Shylock's conduct merits condemnation. We can only refrain from condemning it because we know he has suffered from being a Jew and this surely is another form of prejudice?