Shylock - Victim of Villain?

Authors Avatar

Kelvin Cheung

Shylock: Victim or Villain? Discuss

The play, The Merchant of Venice, is set in a time when Jews were feared and despised by the Christians, especially in a city like Venice, where the play was actually set in. The main reason for the Christians to hate the Jews so much was because Jesus Christ, known as the son of God by the Christians, was believed to be killed by the Jews. From the twelfth century onwards, they were often expelled from Christian controlled countries and cities. The ones who remained were forbidden to own property or to engage in any of the professions. They were forced to lend money with interests (known as usury) as it was their only way to profit. The Christians who disapproved this practice distrusted the Jews even more.

Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who prospered with the practice of usury. He is considered to be the main antagonist in The Merchant of Venice. However, he is also portrayed as a victim of discrimination and prejudice. Through out the play he wanted revenge on the Christians, especially Antonio, who perhaps behaved most irrespectively towards Shylock.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Act 1 Sc. 3 is the first scene we come across Shylock the usurer. Here Bassanio is in the middle of a discussion with the Jew about borrowing three thousand ducat. The first things Shylock says at the beginning of the scene are repetitive: 'Three thousand ducats...for three months...and Antonio bound.' This is possibly because Shylock is very cautious, but might also suggest that he is trying to tease Bassanio by refusing to give him a straight answer. He continues to do this in the rest of the scene.

Shylock later rejects Bassanio's invitation to dine. His response:

'Yes, to smell pork...I will with you...but I will not eat...drink...nor pray with you.'

Act 1 Sc 3 ll. 29-33

This suggests a deep feeling of mistrust between Shylock and the Christians. What is originally a friendly invitation leads Shylock into thinking that he would be forced to eat pork, which is forbidden in the Jewish religion. This might be a reference to the years of victimisation by Christians. What Shylock says aside after Antonio enters the scene seems to confirm this: ' I hate him for he is a Christian...If I catch him once upon the hip, I will feed the ancient grudge I bear him'. Within this, however, we can also find an element of villainy here. For 'hate' is a strong feeling of resentment against a person. He even suggests that he would take revenge on Antonio if he ever has a chance. But later we learn that Antonio did indeed mistreat Shylock, according to what Shylock says to him:

'You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

Join now!

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine...

You that did void your rheum upon my beard,

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur...'

Act 1 Sc 3 ll. 106-113

In fact, Antonio confirms what he had done and replies that he would do the same thing again. To spit on someone is utterly disgusting and to kick someone is like treating him as an animal. Antonio shows no remorse at all for his behaviour, highlighting Shylock as a victim of discrimination.

Shylock does in fact allow Bassanio to borrow the money in the end; but his intention ...

This is a preview of the whole essay