In your opinion, is Shylock a victim or a villain of the society he lives in?

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 In your opinion, is Shylock a victim or a villain of the society he lives in?

The ‘Merchant of Venice’ was written at a time when there was great prejudice towards the Jewish race. They were known for their intelligence, hard work and business acumen, which later led them to be mistreated and resented. They were made to wear distinctive clothing in order to be identified, and citizens of Venice could treat Jews in any way they wished. The Christian church also taught that Jews should be despised for their rejection of Jesus and that money lending was morally wrong. The Jewish people were also not allowed to work in the government, military or guilds. This meant that their lifestyles were restricted and uncomfortable. ‘Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.’ This is generally how the Jewish race was stereotyped at the time, and throughout the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ they are continually conveyed as such.

Shylock is a Jewish money lender who is hated for his greed and his religion. In the late 16th century, Christianity was the main religion in Europe and as a result a very powerful force. Therefore many people feared the Jews and did all they could to convert them to Christianity. Hence, for that reason Judaism was extremely important to Shylock and the rest of the Jewish nation. At the time of Shakespeare there was also a certain duty that a daughter owed her father, she had to honour his wishes and marry whomever he decided was suitable. ‘I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.’ This quotation comes from Portia, a rich heiress, who still has to abide by her dead father’s rules. This contrasts greatly with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who goes against his wishes and elopes with a Christian man. This applied even more so to the Jews as Judaism was passed on through the mother and so in converting to Christianity, Jessica will be denying Shylock of a Jewish heir.

In the course of analysing the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ a key factor to remember is that attitudes towards Shylock have changed over time. In modern day society, he could be perceived as a victim, as he is a product of his environment. These days our society is far more accepting, whereas in the 16th century, Shylock may have been perceived as a villain, in opposition to the calm and rational persona of Antonio.

Throughout the play Shylock is continually persecuted for his religion and beliefs. Although the Christians depend on him for money loans, they are un-necessarily aggressive in his presence and have no restraints when it comes to verbally abusing him. ‘To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.’ This depicts Shylock as a victim of his society and continually plays on the sympathy of the audience. Shakespeare also illustrates the suffering that the Jewish race was exposed to and the stereotypical views that were cast upon them. ‘The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.’ In the 16th century Christianity was seen as the superior religion and Shakespeare is portraying the way in which the Christians saw themselves. They believed that Jews were dishonest and immoral and that in converting them to Christianity, they would become better people. This explains the ways in which the Christians perceived the Jews and the grudges that were held against them.

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In act 2 Scene 3, Jessica, is talking to Lancelot, the clown, about her plans to run away with Lorenzo, a Christian man. Although in modern day society we might feel that Jessica is entitled to her freedom, in Shakespearean time, it was customary for a daughter to live by her father’s rules. ‘Become a Christian and thy loving wife.’ Jessica shames no only Shylock’s household but most importantly his religion, which he honours and respects. This again contrasts with Portia, as she obeys her father and retains an immense honour for him even though he has passed away. ...

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