“More sinned against, than sinning” How far do you agree with this description of how Shylock Is presented in the play?
In the play, A Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents Shylock as both a man who is sinning but also a man who has been sinned against. Shakespeare shows Shylock as a stereotypical villain as being greedy, malicious and a bitter man who is hated for his money lending but also for his religion. Having said this audience’s nowadays are able to recognise an injustice in the way Shylock is treated. Shylock is shunned from society predominantly due his Jewish background, creating conflicting responses from the audience. In many productions Shylock is portrayed as more of a miserly money lender and malign villain, however to other audiences he is played in a quite different perspective, as a victim of the society around him. Shakespeare achieves all this through the use of various techniques, such imagery,antithesis, repetition and personification.
In Act 1 Scene 3, the audience witnesses Shylock for the first time; Shylock nurses a long standing grudge against Antonio, he reveals that he despises Antonio because he is a Christian and also lends without interest therefore bringing down the rate of interest. Here Shylock can be seen to be the one who is sinned against by his contemporaries and is presented as a person who is hated and mocked by Antonio. “You call me a misbeliever, cut dog throat, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine… You that did void your rheum upon my beard” Shylock uses the command word “you” to emphasise his anger and bitterness towards Antonio; his frequent mentions of the cruelty he has endured at the hands of Christians makes it hard for the audience to label him as a natural born monster; a view many Elizabethans would have had. Shakespeare also writes, “He hates our sacred nation” and “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose/An evil soul producing holy witness/ Is like a villain with a smiling cheek” Accusing Antonio, Shylock again sheds light onto the attitude of Christians towards Jews in the play. As a opposed to the sombre theme of love that dominates 1.1 and 1.2, Shakespeare make the audience focus of the word hate, creating a contrast between the three scenes emphasising Shylock’s treatment. Next we see Antonio actively berating Shylock, and comparing him to the devil (a theme repeated throughout the play). Shakespeare uses words like “evil” and “villain” to describe Shylock, all of which have dark connotations but at the same time emphasise the contemptuous nature in which Antonio treats Shylock, something the audience would pick upon. Shakespeare uses the phrase “smiling villain” an image often used in his other plays to show again to the audience Antonio’s racist nature creating the sense that Antonio is the one in the wrong, not Shylock.
Moreover, Shylock addresses Antonio and Bassanio as “Signiors or Fair sir”, in a friendly manner. Whether this act of kindness is genuine is debatable however the fact still remains that Antonio still, even after Shylocks politeness replies rudely by still naming him as “Jew”. Shakespeare here presents Shylock as being not villainous as we once thought he would be but as to being sinned against. Shakespeare creates a very tense conversation between the two men and gives an insight into attitudes into Venetian society and the complex nature of human nature.
On the other hand, however, Shylock can be presented to the audience as the sinner of this scene. Shakespeare can be seen as presenting Shylock as a more stereotypical villain; as a deceitful schemer and perhaps even an evil minded person. As soon as Antonio enters the scene, Shylock goes into an aside, “How like a fawning publican he looks!/ I hate him for he is a Christian.” One may argue that this sudden uprising of rhetoric stems from the fact that Shylock has been mistreated by Christians; despite this however, the audience still sees Shylock being the one who is being racist towards Antonio, and actually the one sinning against Antonio. Shakespeare using the iambic pentameter to emphasise certain words like “hate” and “Christian” to add to the errant tone of Shylock. It adds a sense of bitterness to the overall tone of Shylock’s voice and somewhat puts the spot light upon Antonio. Moreover, Shylock seems to revel in the fact of taking a pound of flesh from Antonio if he fails to pay the bond back. When Shakespeare writes, “An equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and take in what part of your body pleaseth me” This section of the scene creates a foreboding atmosphere; Shylock refers to the taking of the flesh previously as “merry – sport” and also does not specify where he will take the pound of flesh from creating a sense of ambiguity and heightening the sense of foreboding in the scene. Furthermore, Shakespeare uses words like “merry” and pleaseth” to make the audience feel like as though Shylock wants to and takes pleasure in harming people, somewhat fulfilling this villainous image of Shylock. This presentation of Shylock on the contrary unlike before shows Shylock as vengeful and somewhat twisted causing the audience to ponder whether Shylock is a sinner.