Examine how Shylock is presented in The Merchant of Venice.

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Amna Abdelrahim

October 2005

Examine how Shylock is presented in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, one of his romantic comedies, was written in 1596.  It deals with a dispute between Shylock, a wealthy Jewish moneylender, and Antonio, a Venetian citizen.  The play begins in Venice, where Antonia’s friend, Bassanio, needs a loan of 3,000 ducats so that he can court a wealthy heiress named Portia.  Not being able to raise the funds himself, Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan.  Unfortunately Antonio’s wealth is invested in merchant ships that are presently at sea.  Despite his wealth being tied up at sea, Antonio agrees to ask for a short term loan of the money from Shylock, a Jewish usurer.  Shylock has a deep seated hate of Antonio because of the insulting treatment that Antonio has shown Shylock in the past.  Although he is reluctant at first, Shylock agrees to lend the money on the basis that if the 3,000 ducats are not repaid within three months, Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Despite the harsh terms, Antonio agrees to the contract, confident that his ships, and his wealth, will return before the date of repayment.

Just before the wedding of Bassanio and Portia, Shylock discovers to his horror that Jessica, his only daughter, has eloped with a Christian, taking a great deal of his wealth with her.  Jessica’s husband is Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio and Antonio; Lorenzo shares their antipathy to Shylock.  While his friends are happy in their new marriages, Antonio is worried because he learns that two of his ships have been lost at sea.  With the repayment date looming, Shylock is asking for his pound of flesh.  Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and defends Antonio, successfully arguing that Shylock may have his pound of flesh as long as he draws no blood, as there was no mention of blood in the original agreement.  As this would be impossible, and as taking the flesh would have killed Antonio, Antonio wins his case and Shylock is found guilty of conspiring to murder a Venetian citizen.  He thus forfeits his wealth as well as the loan.  Half of the wealth goes to the city and half to Antonio.  In the end, Antonio gives his half to Shylock, on condition that he bequeaths it to Jessica, whom he has disinherited, and he must in addition convert to Christianity.  The play ends with all the characters happy except for Shylock who has been humiliated.

In considering Shakespeare’s attitude to Shylock, it is necessary to take into account the prevailing attitude of Elizabethan’s towards the Jewish people.  There was a long standing prejudice against Jews in England. Jews were often persecuted for their beliefs and their riches, and this was true throughout Europe.  Jews had been in England for centuries, and had been discriminated against many a time.  In 1190 the Jews in York were massacred and in 1290 all the Jews were to be exported.  Although these events were happening in England they were common throughout Europe. Although Shakespeare has written about a Jew, there were in fact very few Jews in England at the time. Most people knew about Jews not through personal experience but through the facts and myths that were handed down through generations, and it is probable that Shakespeare had learnt about them in the same way. Historically, Jews in England were not allowed to own land or have professional careers.  This, coupled with the fact that Christians were not allowed to lend money with interest, was the reason why many Jews had earned a living by lending money with interest.  The Christian attitude to “usury” meant that Jews began to be held in contempt because of their association with money-lending. There is clear evidence in The Merchant of Venice of Elizabethan society’s attitude to usury:

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        ''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 ...

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