James Wilson 08/05/2007
Shylock: Victim or Villain?
A key feature of the play ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ is the issue of whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. This issue is raised at many crucial points most of which can be separated into the categories victim or villain.
Act 1 Scene 3 displays Shylock as a sensible business man. This is our first introduction of Shylock and therefore produces our first impressions. The first point where Shylocks’ character is revealed in detail is during his soliloquy of lines 37 – 48. At this point Shylock gives an aside to the audience which no character can hear. We learn a lot about Shylocks’ behaviour toward Antonio and Christians in general. This shows a man who wants revenge and who is desperate to get his own back, as the text says; ‘Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him!’ This shows that Shylock feels it his duty to his nation (the Jews) to seek revenge on Antonio. This entire speech displays Shylock as a villain, a heartless man who is not willing to forgive.
During Act1 Scene 3 our feelings toward Shylock change dramatically. Shylock is portrayed as a villain until the point where Antonio enters. Antonio does not treat Shylock with any respect despite the fact that he is asking for a favour, this causes us to feel sympathy toward Shylock and he suddenly becomes less villainous. We begin to wonder why Antonio acts this way, when making the decision of the bond Shylock stalls and delays frequently, in order to plot his terms of the bond. This shows his villainous side and how much he wants to get Antonio. When Shylock has stated the terms his attitude changes and he then tries to hurry the bond into confirmation. This shows how he is desperate to get Antonio, again reinforcing his villainous attitude.
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The next turn of events is during lines 102-123 we begin to feel sympathy for Shylock. The reasons for his villainous attitude toward Antonio become clear. We learn of the treatment imposed on Shylock by Antonio, the text says, ‘spit upon my Jewish gabardine’ we begin to empathise with Shylock and we see him as a victim to Christian prejudice.
When we realise the poor treatment of Shylock by Antonio we are greeted of a speech by Antonio’s. To our surprise, Antonio does not apologies for his actions, instead saying he is likely to repeat his actions, the text says;
‘I am as like to call thee so again’ The fact that Antonio is asking for a favour and remains treating Shylock so badly makes us feel more sympathy for Shylock and he is displayed as a victim.
Act 1 scene 3 is an interesting one when considering the issue of whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. There are many features which show his villainy but this is alternated by the times that are shown as a victim. Overall the effect on the audience would be a strong one, we would focus on the poor treatment of Shylock and feel sorry for him. Therefore he is a victim.
There are many points of the play where other characters comment on their feelings toward Shylock. Most notable are the three mentioned below;
During act 2 scene 2 Lancelot is deciding whether he will stay with his master (Shylock) or leave. He describes Shylock as a ‘fiend’ and makes us think lowly of Shylock. We believe he is a poor employer and that he is the reason for Lancelot’s choice to leave Shylock. This displays one characters view of Shylock and most definitely in a villainous light.
Jessica is involved in an exchange with Lancelot. This is during act 2 scene 3 where Jessica talks to Lancelot about leaving home. Her opinions are important as Shylocks daughter presumably knows him best. Jessica seems ashamed of Shylock and is not willing to continue to live with him. This shows Shylock in a bad light and presents Shylock, again as a villain. This is the second opinion of Shylock from another character and possible the most profound as Jessica is Shylock daughter.
Act 2 Scene 8 displays a third characters picture of Shylock Solanio begins to describe the words that he heard Shylock scream. Shylock shouts out ‘Justice’ and it is clear he will have no mercy for Antonio. This reinforces Shylock’s villainous side and offers us a Christian stand-point.
These three acts all consider other characters views of Shylock, all of which, on face value, show him to be a villain. There is one point we must consider before assuming this. All these characters are Christian, except Jessica who is under Christian influence. This is likely to show that feelings toward Shylock are based on Christian prejudice and not well informed opinions. There is no escaping the fact that when encountered by 3rd party opinion, we can only see Shylock as a villain.
Does Shylock really act as poorly toward others as most characters believe? There are several scenes which focus on Shylocks attitude toward Jessica and the emotional impact her actions have on him, an alternative view-point.
Act 2 scene 5 shows us Shylocks attitude toward Jessica’s safety when he realises a Christian mask will be occurring one evening. Shylock acts very protectively, it seems he is genuinely worried about the safety of Jessica. He tells her to ‘Lock all my doors’. This fatherly behaviour makes us see that Shylock is a generally good man and our opinions sway toward his victim like side.
Jessica steals Shylock’s money that night and runs away to Lorenzo this is discovered in act 2 scene 6. When we realise that Jessica has stolen Shylock’s money, our thoughts go out to him, we feel sorry for him and see him as a victim.
Finally during act 3 scene 1 (line 7 onwards) we have a scene where Shylock is asking questions about both his money and Jessica. The turning point in this scene is the part where Shylock discovers Jessica has exchanged a family ring for a monkey. Shylock famously breaks down and we are met by his words ‘I would not have traded it for a wilderness of monkeys!’ We find it easy to empathise with Shylock and see the emotional pressure placed on him, he is clearly a victim.
From these three scenes we can see the reasons for Shylocks infrequent villainous attitude. He is placed under a lot of pressure and heartache by his daughter when he tries hard to be a good father. Again we perceive him as a victim.
Considering Shylocks position with Jessica we do not know how he will react when he discovers the news about Antonio, Antonio will not be able to settle the bond. This question is answered in act 3 scene 7. This is obviously a key scene as it shows Shylocks decision to take no mercy with Antonio. Line 44 gives the words ‘Let him look to his bond!’ On face value we see that Shylock is villainous but It can be interpreted in a very different way. Shylock is only acting this way as he is learning from Christian example. Shylock understands that Jews are equal to Christians claiming, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Shylock is simply following Christian example and is a victim, made villainous by the villainy of the Christians.
Christian prejudice seems to be the explanation for Shylocks villainous turns. A good example of the un-just pressure placed on Shylock I shown in act 3 scene 5 where Lancelot claims Jessica is damned, simply as she is a Jew by birth, despite the fact that she has converted to a Christian. Jews are villainous simply as they are Jewish? This scene helps us to understand what Shylock must have been going through and we see him as a victim.
The final test for Shylock is the court scene, the focal point of the play. This occurs during act 4 scene 1 and throughout the entire scene Shylock remains fixed, he wants justice. Again we see a villainous side to Shylock which back-fires as a technicality is found in the case, which saves Antonio. The ‘tables are turned’ and know ironically, Shylock begs for mercy, he is of course shown mercy, ‘Christian mercy’. ‘
When Shylock looses the court case we expect him to walk home, head hung low, but the Christians do not allow this. Shylock is forced to make a will in favour of Lorenzo and become a Christian, which to Shylock means going to hell. If a Jew disgraced his religion (by becoming a Christian) he would be damned to hell. Shylock would rather be dead than be a Christian. This treatment is very cruel and far too extreme. We feel for Shylock and he is seen as a victim.
To conclude, it is very easy to see Shylock as a victim or a villain. It does seem though that anytime he acts in a villainous way it is caused by extreme pressure and prejudice from the Christians. This villainous side is not the true Shylock. Shylock is a kind decent man, a good father. He is merely cursed by a Jewish background, struggling to survive in a Christian world.