The Merchant of Venice: Should Shylock be seen as a victim or a villain?

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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, ...

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