The Merchant of Venice:
Should Shylock be seen as a victim or a villain?
By Adwoa Alexsis A. Mintah
In England, when Shakespeare was writing, Jews had been banished for the past 300 years. Shakespeare’s would not have known any Jews; their knowledge of Jews would have been based solely on rumour and prejudice.
They would have enjoyed the verbal insults and racist jokes against Shylock and would probably not have questioned the treatment Shylock receives, as we do today.
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be acted, watched and enjoyed. However, with the Merchant of Venice it caused much praise, which came with much controversy with the domestic and cultural situations in the play.
The language used in the Merchant of Venice by the characters is set on not only by their social class but by their gender.
An important question I considered was whether there is a male way of speaking different from the female way.
Most of the men in the play are preoccupied with matters of finance and the law. The women, though aware of the importance of wealth, are trapped into hatching love plots on the border of male activities. Portia has an interest in the law, but has to resort to dressing up as a man before she can act on behalf of her husband’s best friend.
First there is tonal contrast between two places: the world of downtown Venice - a gritty, male world dominated by business, politics and conflict- and that of Belmont, which is a dream-like, female space in which thoughts of love and marriage prevail.
Then there are the frequent changes of tone in the action of the play: the atmosphere changes from love or comedy to cruelty from scene to scene, sometimes even within scenes - so much so that it's often hard to decide whether we are watching a comedy or a tragedy or something in between. Equally noticeable are the changes in pace. For example, Act 2 is made up of lots of short scenes that rush us through the story of Jessica and Lorenzo's elopement. In contrast, Act 4 is one long scene taken up almost wholly by the trial, in whose complexities and emotions we are quickly caught up.
The play begins in the middle of a conversation, in which Solanio describes nervously waiting for the safe outcome of a trade deal involving transport by sea. “…….and every object that might make me fear misfortune to my ventures, out of doubt would make me sad.” (Lines 15-22)
The entire of act 1 scene 1 is basically an all male scene.
The main topics of the men’s conversation are money and the suggestion that Antonio is in love, which causes him to reject the idea by shouting “fie, fie”
Nevertheless, when looking at the women’s conversation in scene 2, it is noticeable that there slight differences when the opposite sex is speaking.
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The women’s main topics in their conversation are men and Portia’s father.
There is a lot of hostility between the Christians and the Jews of Venice, and this of course fuels the hatred between Shylock and Antonio. There is verbal abuse between the two groups. Shylock is keen to commit murder in the cutting out of the pound of Antonio's flesh.
But the conflict is balanced to some extent by comedy. We can laugh at Lancelot's trick on his father, Gobbo, and at the bawdy jokes.
Dramatic irony arises from the scenes involving disguise and deception. We, the audience, are aware that Lancelot is deceiving his old father, who Jessica dresses up as a boy, and that Portia and Nerissa are really Balthazar and his clerk. It's amusing because we know more than the characters on stage.
As well as the main characters that people the various plots of the play, there are some 'commentator characters' like Solanio and Salarino, who fill in as narrators and tell us about events we have not seen on stage.
There are four factors to the story of the Merchant of Venice:
- The Bond- Shylock and the pound of flesh he threatens to take from Antonio’s if he doesn’t pay him his 3000 ducats.
- The Caskets- The winning of Portia
- The Elopement- Between Jessica and Lorenzo
- The Rings- The love test, a trick Portia plays on Bassanio to test his love for her.
The contrast between Antonio, a Merchant of Venice who makes his money from trading fine goods carried to and from in his sailing ships, and Shylock a Jewish moneylender. The deal goes wrong when a number of Antonio’s ships perish at the sea and threaten him with ruin.
Shylock is determined to earn the pound of flesh that was promised him instead, of interest when the loan was made.
And, from my viewpoint, this bond is the main complication of the play and perhaps the most exciting.
This is because throughout the remainder of the play we want to know if Shylock keeps to his threats.
We first hear of Portia when described by Bassanio as “rich, beautiful and full of wondrous virtues.” The Prince of Morocco calls her "the fairest creature northward born.” She is bound by her father's will to marry the man who chooses correctly between a gold, silver and lead casket - one contains her portrait. She resents this: "I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike.”
Our first impressions of Portia, as she describes her suitors to Nerissa, show that she is witty and quick-thinking. However, she also shows a racist attitude in her comments: she says that the Prince of Morocco has "the complexion of a devil.” (However, this attitude would probably not have shocked Shakespeare's original audiences.) She loves Bassanio.
He boasts of having received "fair speechless messages" from her eyes, which hints of her feelings for him.
She is nervous when as he chooses a casket, fearing to lose him. She tells him "I stand for sacrifice" She is delighted when he chooses the right casket and appears worried that she will not come up to Bassanio's expectations: "I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, / Exceed account. "
We hear of Lorenzo and Jessica travelling through Italy, rashly spending huge amounts of money. Portia appoints him to look after Belmont while she is in Venice. (Maybe Lorenzo and Jessica had nowhere else to go.) He praises Portia's "bearing" during Bassanio's absence, saying she has "a noble and a true conceit / of god-like amity.”
When he and Jessica are alone together at the start of Act V, they talk of famous lovers - all of whom are associated with betrayal or tragedy. This suggests that their love consists of betrayal- the betrayal that Jessica has played on her father and tragedy- the tragedy of her never being able to speak to her father again. Lorenzo talks passionately to Jessica about "the sweet power of music" - but does not seem to do much that is practical to help her.
She gives him a ring as a token of her love. (Do you think that she is already planning to test him?)
She immediately offers to pay Antonio's debt twice over, just because he is a friend of Bassanio's.
She disguises herself as Balthazar, a lawyer, and arranges to go to Venice to help Antonio. This shows courage and ingenuity and her arguments are very intelligent.
She speaks forcefully and eloquently of mercy - "It is twice blessed; / it blesses him that gives, and him that takes.”
She allows Shylock to believe he will have his pound of flesh (and Antonio to know that he will die) right until the last moment, when she outwits him. In my opinion this not cruel, but a cleverly planned trick on a “villain”. (She must have known about the loophole all along.) She clearly feels that Shylock deserves what is coming to him, this is acted out believably well in the BBC Lawrence Oliver Production.
She goes on to show no mercy to Shylock when she tells him that he must not draw blood. She is ruthless: she first forbids Shylock to retract the bond and then goes on to enact an ancient Venetian law against him for having threatened Antonio's life that could result in Shylock's death.
She is similarly ruthless to Bassanio, making him give her - still dressed as Balthazar - her ring as a thank you gift for saving Antonio. The fact that she can plan this trick immediately after Shylock's humiliation suggests she has a clear conscience over what has happened.
Despite those four main factors, The Merchant of Venice is a play about Shylock who was once a powerful man, who got his comeuppance in the end, which is inevitable.
We watched three productions on The Merchant of Venice:
- The National Theatre Production
- C4 Production
- BBC Lawrence Oliver Production
From my viewpoint I feel as though The National Theatre interpretation of The Merchant of Venice is very overdramatic, as within the first 10minutes of it starting, all that seemed to be happening were people crying or slapping each other! In my opinion the actors overact the characters, in this production. Despite this, I felt as though the only character, who lived up to my expectations, was Jessica. Jessica is torn between her father, becoming Lorenzo’s wife and a Christian. Although she knows it’s wrong, she still acts like the perfect daughter until he learns of her betrayal later on. Also what I noticed in this production was it was the only one to feature Jessica and Shylock engaging in a Hebrew prayer together, which is not surprising as she was brought up an orthodox Jew. However, Jessica has been quite calculating as she knew later on that day she would elope with a Christian- Lorenzo. Jessica has a very powerful motive for leaving her father, as I view that part of the reason is because she feels her father does not respect her and since her mother died he has been mourning the loss of his wife and forcing Jessica to run the household as well as join in his constant prayers.
In the BBC Lawrence Oliver Production and the c4 Production, Shylock is not portrayed as that strict, they show him being disrespectful and humiliated. In the C4 Production he is dressed to look like everyone else, and the only reason we can tell he is a Jew is due to his skull cap. However in the BBC Production he is dressed as some sort of vagrant.
Jessica’s concerns that her father might find out about Lorenzo, her concerns are substantial but also questionable. In my opinion, to some extent I think she wants her father to find out, but then again I also think that she genuinely feels bad and knows that she has betrayed her fathers trust. Jessica’s guilt is shown, when she shows signs of regret. “Alack, what heinous sin is in me, to be ashamed to be my father’s child?” This gives out the message to us, the readers and viewers, that she feels ashamed of what she is about to do. However, her guilt has not hindered her hopes of being with Lorenzo. “… if thou keep promise, I shall and this strife, become a Christian and thy loving wife” She obviously is willing to give up a lot to be Lorenzo’s wife, even her religion. Her feelings towards her father vary at times. She explains that she feels that her father doesn’t respect her. “But though I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners.”(Act 3, lines 17-18)
In the last act of the BBC Production, the act starts in moonlight and ends as morning comes. This is because; it sets up Portia’s comparison of the light of Belmont, shining in the darkness to a good deed shining in a naughty world. Belmont represents the light of love and harmony. The move from the darkness to dawn is itself a powerful symbol, representing the move from confusion, uncertainty and loss to knowledge, faithfulness and the return of fortune. By the last act, Shylock is no longer required as he has been banished and forced to become a Christian.
The age-old dilemma about Shylock was whether he was a villain or a victim? Was he a ruthless villain who didn’t care about anybody else or a man who couldn’t handle the demands of life, and was pushed over the edge?
There has always been controversy about Shylock. To he is a misery money-lender who delights in the prospect of cutting a pound of flesh from a noble Merchant who eventually exposes Shylocks corrupt ways. Although some see him as a bloodthirsty fiend armed with scales and knifes, who cares more for his money then for his runaway daughter. Such a view sees him as a comic or a hostile villain who gets his just desserts in the end.