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.
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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 buy...sell...talk...walk 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,
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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 is not an act of kindness, rather a chance of taking revenge. Shylock's bond with Antonio, 'If you repay me not on such a day...a place...sum or sums as are...let the forfeit be...an equal pound of your fair flesh...', is absurd. One might question why Shylock would want a pound of human flesh, what he would do with it, or whether he is serious about the bond at all. As the play continues the audience would find out that Shylock does intend to do this if Antonio is ever unable to repay the money. Antonio knows he can repay it once his trade ships return. Shylock, however, knows that there is the slightest chance that all Antonio's ships might sink and he would be unable to pay the debt. This is perhaps the most villainous thing Shylock has done in the play as it is almost like a plan to murder someone.
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In Act 2 Sc. 2 Lancelot the Clown quarrels with himself by playing his conscience and the demons in his mind. His argument is about whether he should stay as the servant of Shylock or run away and serve Bassanio instead. He puts it to his conscience (which is trying to ‘convince’ him to stay as Shylock’s servant) that the Jew is a devil.
‘…I should stay with the Jew my master who – God bless the mark! – is a kind of devil…’
Act 2 Sc2 ll. 20-21
This is evidence that Shylock treats Lancelot badly – an act of villainy.
Another piece of supporting evidence can be found in the next scene where Lancelot departs with Jessica, Shylock's daughter. From their conversation, it is obvious that the relationship between father and daughter is not good. She describes her home as 'hell', expressing her strong resentment of living with her father. This is because 'hell' is perhaps the worst possible place in human imagination. While this statement does not directly point at Shylock, Jessica criticises her father further in her next speech.
‘To be asham'd to be my father's child! But though I am a daughter to his blood I am not to his manners.’
Act 2 Sc3 ll. 16-18
However a child might dislike it's parents, it is unlikely that the it would feel ashamed about it. But here Jessica feels that being Shylock's daughter is a disgrace, suggesting that Shylock has never been a responsible father.
It is true that Shylock does not treat Jessica like a daughter. In fact, some might think he treats her more like a servant. At the beginning of Act 2 Scene 5, Shylock continues to shout at her rudely to get her attention: 'What, Jessica!...What, Jessica!...Why, Jessica, I say!'. Following this, Shylock once again insults the Christians:
‘But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian...’
Shylock is invited to dinner by Bassanio. This friendly invitation results in Shylock believing it to be an attempt to insult him (For example, eating pork). It is clear that Shylock simply hates anyone for being a Christian, whether the person has done any wrong to him. On the other hand, one might see him as a victim. His paranoia means he can hardly make friends with anyone, let alone getting on with the Christians.
On the other hand, Jessica's actions in the play also portraits Shylock as a victim. While he might not have been the best father he can be, Jessica's plot to abandon Shylock for once and for all is perhaps too cruel in Shylock's part. Does he really deserve this? Her action later in the play further victimises Shylock In act 2 scene 6, we learn that not only does Jessica leave her father, but also with her a large quantity of his jewels and ducat. She is to marry a Christian man and become a Christian woman. To be betrayed by his own daughter is perhaps the biggest insult to Shylock.
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Shylock appears once again in Act 3 scene 1. When Shylock hears the rumour of a trade fleet is wrecked on the Narrow Seas, which could have been Antonio’s ships, he comments on Antonio and his bond with him: ‘a bankrupt, a prodigal…a beggar…He was wont to call me usurer…He was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look to his bond.’ From this, we seem to get the idea that Shylock is actually taking his bond with Antonio seriously. But when Salarino taunts Shylock, saying that he would never take Antonio’s flesh because there is no use for it, Shylock replies: ‘To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.’ It is clear that Shylock intends to take revenge on Antonio if he ever forfeits his bond. This is an act of villainy.
However, what Shylock says afterwards would cause most audience to have sympathy for him.
‘He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.’
Act 3 Sc 1 ll. 48-52
This highlights the previous victimisations on Shylock and other Jews by the Christians. As a modern audience, we would feel sorry for Shylock; but as a person living at the times of Shakespeare, we might not feel the same way because most Christians at the time were also anti-Semitic. In spite of this, Shylock’s power speech following this would likely to convince everybody.
‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’
As the audience we would most certainly have sympathy for Shylock. He has made an important point - Jews, just like Christians, are human beings and they should receive equal rights. Shylock has almost become a hero here. However, his extention might make us change our mind. 'And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?' While some people might think it is not right to take revenge, it is hard not to agree with this.
Act 3 scene 1 is also the first scene we see Shylock after the departure of Jessica. We, as the audience, would wonder how he feels about the loss of his daughter.
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The beginning of act 4 is the infamous scene of the play. Here the duke seems to be biased towards Antonio. At the start of the scene, he takes pity on Antonio and criticises Shylock. Here is what he says to Antonio when Shylock is not yet at the court:
‘I am sorry for thee. Thou art come to answer
A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.’
Act 4 Sc 1 ll. 3-6
His behaviour is unjust. As a man of law, he should take no side, whether the person is a Christian or a Jew. This once again highlights the discrimination of Jews in Venice, and also Shylock as a victim. The way Duke treats Antonio and Shylock is also very different. For example, at the start he calls Antonio in politely; conversely he orders Shylock around crudely, calling him ‘the Jew’ instead of his name (in fact, many others in the court also refer him as the Jew instead of his name). Another example is found in line 173 of the same scene, Duke entitles him as ‘old Shylock’ – again not a very nice thing to say. These things are minor, but as the audience we would feel the whole court seems to be against Shylock.
Shylock is being victimised further after he has entered the court. He is told by the Duke that he should not only abandon the bond, but also take pity on Antonio and allows him to go away without repaying the debt. ‘We all expect a gentle answer, Jew’ says Duke. This is an utterly ridiculous request from a court.
Shylock, however, refuses to do this.
‘I have possess’d your grace of what I purpose,
…To have the due and forfeit of my bond’
His determination of the bond is not hindered by Bassanio’s offer of money; not even six times the original sum.
‘If every ducat in six thousand ducats
Were in six parts, and every part a ducat,
I would not draw them; I would have my bond.’
Act 4 Sc 1 ll. 85-87
It is clear that all Shylock wants is revenge. No matter how much money he is offered, his answer would still be the same. Shylock no longer has the sympathy of the audience. He has shown that he is not prepared to show any mercy at all. In fact he is enjoying his triumph over the Christians. This is shown when he sharpens his knife, believing he would have Antonio sooner or later.
The audience might agree with Gratiano’s comment on this:
‘Not on thy sole, but on thy soul, harsh Jew,
Thou mak’st thy knife keen. But no metal can,
…Of sharp envy. Can no prayers piece thee?’
While we might have the same opinion as Gratiano, Shylock’s response to this: ‘I stand here for law’ is well-reasoned. It is apparent the Jew has no right to take Antonio’s life, but one might argue that if Antonio is not prepared to risk his life then he should not have signed the bond. As Antonio stated in Act 1 scene 3: ‘…when did friendship take a breed for barren metal of his friend? But lend it rather to thine enemy, who if he break, thou mayst with better face exact the penalty.’ Antonio has in fact accepted the consequences of the bond, and in a sense Shylock has the right to take it. It is hard to decide whether Shylock should have his bond.
Later in the scene, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, pretends to allow Shylock to preceed with the bond. This somewhat makes Shylock even more excited. He continously applause Portia as an excellent judge. This emphasises his anxiety to have his bond. She also asked him for a surgeon, which Shylock refused. He simply replies: 'I cannot find it, 'tis not in the bond.' It is obvious that he wants Antonio's life.
In the end, however, Antonio is saved when Portia announces that Shylock must take his pound of flesh without a drop of blood because the bond specifies that he is to take only a pound of flesh. This is of course impossible, and Shylock is charged because he has attempted to take the life of a citizen.
‘That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half of his goods...’
Act 4 scene 1 ll. 348-351
Shylock his been tricked by Portia into breaking the law, not only he fails to take the life of Antonio and loses the three thousand ducats, but also everything he has including his Jewish faith and tradition. Shylock is portrayed as a victim here. In my opinion, the punishment is too harsh.