How should we best understand Shylock- villain or victim?

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                                MERCHANT OF VENICE

ESSAY QUESTION: - How should we best understand Shylock- villain or victim?

The Merchant of Venice, a tragic- comedy written in the late 16th century by the greatest known English author, William Shakespeare. This is a tale set in the heart of Venice, amongst the Venetian Christians and Jews. The history of the Jews is marked by terrible hardship and atrocities; Jewish people kept up their customs and religion formed tight knit communities and became known for their intelligent hard work and business expertise. These qualities sometimes led to them being mistrusted and resented in the community of Venice in those times. This was especially the case in Christian countries, where there were strong anti- Semitic feelings. The greatest suffering for the Jews was endured during the Nazi domination of Europe during the Second World War and some time before. Six million Jews lost their lives during this terrible time; a period of history known as the Holocaust. This appalling cruelty began with the casual everyday racism, which Shylock also has to endure from the Christians of Venice. Due to the terrible atrocities Jewish people suffered during World War Two and centuries of persecution before that, modern-day pragmatics are very sensitive to language usage that perpetuates the construction of Jewish identity that could incite anti- Semitism; hence Shylock’s problematic place in literary history as a villain or victim.

Shylock is one of the most confusing characters in all of Shakespeare's plays. On the surface, he is a villain only concerned about money and revenge. Some critics, however, argue that Shakespeare takes this "stereotypical" Jew much further, making him a complex character whose sufferings at the hands of racists motivate his anger. While Shakespeare gives no definitive answer as to how Shylock should be viewed, he does make important points in support and in denial of this antagonist.

In relationship to the Merchant of Venice and Shylock’s character, is another partially similar play otherwise known as the ‘Jew of Malta.’ Written by Christopher Marlowe, (produced in the 1590 and published in 1633) it is a play filled with blood and murder, also favourite topics of the Elizabethan audience, who embraced the bloody revenge tragedies. The image of the Jew ‘Barabas’ in the play is a greedy usurer, who would rather be a hated, envied and ill-treated Jew than a poor Christian. This was a common image to be portrayed in the English theatre of a Jewish person.

The play starts with, Bassanio, a Venetian nobleman who seems to have financial difficulties; however he wishes to compete for the hand of Portia, a wealthy heiress of Belmont, in order to restore his fortune. He asks his best friend Antonio, a successful merchant of Venice, to loan him the money necessary to undertake such an attempt. Antonio agrees, but, as all of his assets are tied up at sea, he has to use his credit in order to obtain the money for his friend. They both go to Shylock, who is a rich Jewish moneylender but also an enemy of Antonio’s. Shylock agrees to lend them 3000 ducats, but only if Antonio will sign a bond that says if Antonio isn’t able to repay Shylock within 3 months, then he will have to settle the debt by cutting a pound of flesh from his own body; during this time, Shylock’s beloved daughter is lost to him when she elopes with a man who belongs to a virulently anti-Semitic society. Antonio isn’t able to repay Shylock and so the famous court scene is in issue; when grief, anger and vengeance overcome common sense, he ends up literally forced to his knees to renounce his faith and his fortune. 

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Several Jewish groups say that the play itself is a racist and offensive performance towards their race and religion; however the scenes that are most likely to be referred to as ‘racist’ and ‘offensive,’ are most probably the main scenes, which create the great effect of the play.

In this essay I will be evaluating the character of Shylock in depth, to show if Shakespeare is trying to portray him as a villain or a victim. This question is a question asked by many people, whether Shylock is a ‘villain or a victim,’ but no-one has been ...

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