Shylock: villian or victim

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Katrina Duncan                               Monday, 15 September 2008

To What Extent, In Your Opinion, Is Shylock ‘a Complete and Inhuman Villain’?

The way in which Shylock is played on stage has changed greatly since the play was first performed, when he was made out to be a villain and a clown.  This altered in the nineteenth century when Shylock was portrayed as an intelligent man who had been victimised.  Undoubtedly, Shakespeare did not write Shylock as a simple, one- sided part.  To a modern audience, Shylock is sometimes a villain and sometimes a victim.  However, in Shakespearian times, they would have had the much simpler view that Shylock was in the wrong and they (The Christians) were right.  In Shakespearian England anti- Semitism was rife.  Jews were widely regarded as evil and the entire community had been expelled from England in 1290.  Jews were persecuted worldwide and forced to live their lives in ghettos.  Audiences in the Elizabethan era who were predominately Christians would have delighted in Shylock’s defeat, where as today’s society is multicultural and diverse, hence we may have an entirely different view on this topic.

Throughout the play we hear evidence that would justify Shylock’s wickedness towards Christians, ‘you call me misbeliever, cut- throat dog’.  Anyone who is called these names, ‘spat upon’ and ‘spurned’ is not going to behave in a polite way towards the source of rudeness.  Depicted as a villain to many readers, Shylock shows his true feelings towards Antonio, aside to the audience, ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’.  As well as proving his hatred of Christians, this does nothing for the sympathy towards him from the audience; A Shakespearian audience would immediately dislike Shylock.  

He also states that Antonio ‘lends out money gratis’.  This shows that Shylock’s reasons for hating Antonio are not only because he is a Christian and the way he treats Shylock and fellow Jews, but also the fact that he lends money to people without charging interest, hence which adversely affects Shylock’s livelihood.  This open display of greed and hatred makes Shylock even more an unsympathetic character.  Furthermore, Shylocks hatred for Antonio can build up the dislike of himself to Christians, as they see Antonio as a fellow being.  Shylock is portrayed as narrow- minded, a characteristic associated with archetypical villains.

Shylock displays elements of belligerence in his refusal to forgive Christians.  When Bassanio invites Shylock to dinner, he refuses at first, ‘I will not eat with you, nor drink with you’.  This shows his stubborn belief in ‘the prodigal Christian’ and also the strong divide between religions.  Eventually he goes ‘in hate’.  During the play, we learn of Shylock’s intent in taking Antonio’s life, ‘if I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat that ancient grudge I bear him’.  This adds to the audience’s dislike of him as well as attaining a reverence of a true villain, as the audience are under the belief that Shylock will go to great lengths to take Antonio’s life.

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Shylock is uncaring and rough as a father towards his only daughter.  When we first witness an interaction between them, Shylock orders her about as if she were a servant, ‘hear you me, Jessica, lock up my doors’ and mentions nothing about her well- being, only the well- being of the house, ‘let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house’.  These comments made by Shylock show how his relationship with his daughter is very weak, harsh and strict.  The audience then shows sympathy for Jessica and in turn have an aversion to Shylock.  Moreover, Shylock never notices ...

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