Shylock: Victim or Villain?

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Victoria Harris       10 PCP        10H1

Shylock: Victim or Villain? How Would an Elizabethan Audience’s Response to Shylock Differ from that of a Modern Day Audience? Discuss how a Modern Day Actor could portray his Role and Character in Order to Show the Audience how you understand his Role and Personality.

‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written by William Shakespeare in around 1596. Many things have changed since this time, and I look at many of these things in my essay.

     The story has, from what I can see, four main strands: The bond between Shylock and Antonio: The caskets to aid Portia’s chance husband: Jessica and Lorenzo’s fairy tale love story: The love test of the rings.

     Antonio, a merchant from Venice with much of his money out at sea, helps out his good friend Bassanio with a loan from the vicious Jewish moneylender, Shylock. This way, Bassanio can get to Belmont and woo the well sort after Portia for her fortune.  Shylock being the evil, bloodthirsty man that he appears to be, puts together a bond stating that if Antonio doesn’t have his money in time, a pound of flesh will be Shylocks.  Meanwhile the selection of Portia’s future husband lies in the hands of fate as two men select a casket to open to try and discover Portia’s portrait. Both fail. Bassanio however, does not; he has won Portia. But Portia hears about Antonio’s financial trouble, as he has not the money to pay off the bond. So she dresses as a legal doctor and saves Antonio from certain death declaring that Shylock may have his bond if only Antonio does not shed one drop of blood. Antonio is overwhelmed. In return for the doctor’s good work, the disguised Portia asks for Bassanio’s ring. But it was Portia who gave it him and made him promise never to take it off. Bassanio gives in and hands the doctor his ring. But when all is found out he is forgiven and everyone is happy.

     In this essay I will research the differences between the different ways in which Shylock is portrayed and how over the years the audience’s reaction has also changed.

     In the period this play would have been performed, Jews were looked upon very differently as they are now. In Elizabethan England, Jews were traditionally considered to be villains, even though there were no Jews living in England at the time. They had been taxed to the point of poverty and banished 300 years before Shakespeare. By the time the play was written the word ‘Jew’ had come to apply to hard hearted, unscrupulous money lenders, even though the people referred to weren’t Jewish. In 1954 the Queen’s physician, a Jew who’d converted to Christianity, had been executed after being accused of treason. So it’s possible that Shakespeare was appealing to popular interest when he created Shylock.

      The play is set in Venice, a major Italian city, where as Belmont, Portia’s house, is a fair distance away. In Shakespeare’s time, Venice would have been the most important trading centre in the world. Goods from the Far East were traded in Venice and with them came new ideas and discoveries. Italy held a great fascination with the English, probably because of its Roman heritage, so it was the centre of fashion and luxury. And because it was so far away, it held an air of mystery.

   The English at the time had only a limited experience of foreigners and would have been quite happy at the mis-fortunes of a Jew, a Spaniard, or a Moor. Therefore, you can tell that Shakespeare was giving the public just what they wanted.

     It is only in Act1 Scene3 when Shylock, perhaps the most, interesting character, is introduced. We meet the characters in the middle of a conversation; as Shylock confirms the amount of money Bassanio has requested to borrow in Shylocks name. Before Shylock agrees to lend any money, he repeats the request several times, as if on purpose to make the most of a rich man asking to borrow his money.

Three thousand ducats………and for three months.” Act1 Sc3 L8

     Shylock openly admits that he realises Antonio is a rich and popular man, but then he goes on to talk about the problems with his money being out at sea, and that if Shylock lends Antonio the money, he may not be able to pay it back.

“There be water thieves and land thieves, I mean pirates, AND THEN there is the  peril of waters, wind and rocks” Act1Sc3 L19

     It is after Shylock has listed the problems with Antonio returning the money, that he considers taking the bond. It was maybe at this point, a side of Shylock wanted revenge; therefore started thinking about the forfeit.

     When Antonio enters his room, he immediately talks of hating him.

“I hate him for he is a Christian” Act1Sc3 L34

     The only reason he gives for hating Antonio is because he is a Christian. Here he appears quite racist, which later on he complains about Antonio doing it to him. Maybe it is not because Antonio is a Christian why he hates him, but because he is more respected and takes away his customers by lending money without interest; maybe he is jealous.  Another time when Shylock clashes with Antonio is when Shylock tells the story of Jacob and the sheep in Act1Sc3 L70 Shylock believes that Jacob’s actions were justified whereas Antonio does not. Here there is a total moral clash, which must make the situation a lot tenser; will Shylock end up lending the money? But still Shylock drags it out even more, making the most of this situation.

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“You called me a misbeliever, a cutthroat dog and spat upon me…..

All for use of that which is mine.” Ac1Sc3 L103

     Perhaps Shylock does this to get an apology from Antonio, but this does not happen, showing them both to be quite stubborn. Antonio more or less replies that he is only borrowing money from Shylock. He doesn’t want to be his friend.

“If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not as thy friend” Ac1Sc3 L124

   Then another side of Shylock is shown, as he suggests the forfeit for the bond.


This is a preview of the whole essay