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Shylock: Victim or Villain?

For this coursework I will be studying Shylock and if he is a victim or villain or indeed both. For the past term, I have been studying “The Merchant of Venice” and how he relates to other characters very closely to get a real feeling of what Shylock’s personality is like.

Jews in Venice had formed strong communities taking pride in their religion. Jews were known as being intelligent, hard-working people who had a good business sense in the real world, However, not everyone liked the Jews. Shylock also had to endure cruelty from the Christians of Venice and Shakespeare specifically focuses on Antonio and the Court’s treatment of him.

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Shylock suffers constant verbal abuse which he has to endure. Antonio’s treatment by his fellow Venetians is a great example of what Jews have had to put up with over the previous centuries, being called a “faithless Jew” meaning they are cruel, evil people. Every day Shylock would have to endure this constant abuse from every angle making him feel like an outsider.

The verbal abuse would suggest Shylock should die with the public calling him “old carrion” this would make Shylock feel small in the 16th Century. Shylock is described as a person with no feelings going around the street taking no notice of other people; this is shown by the public calling him a “misbeliever”. Shylock could be regarded as a metaphor for what Jews had to go through, the one-sided abuse Jews could only take on in their everyday lifestyle.

In Act 1, scene three, Shylock talks about his “hate” for Antonio. Shylock begins to show his dark side, bickering how Antonio underminds his business, “The lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice”. Shylock suggests Antonio purposely lends money to get at Shylock, his family and his religion. If Shylock was to catch Antonio in the act secretly undercutting the Jews, he would carry this “ancient grudge” which has been fast on by the conflict between the Jews and Christians. Shylock identifies Antonio as the villain by discussing how Antonio has hate for this sacred nation and “Rails”, talks aloud in public, verbally abusing Shylock and his fellow believers.

Shylock gives another reason for his hate for Antonio. For example, he says how Antonio tries to get in the way of work, “My bargains, and my well-won thrift, Which he calls interest”. Shylock is saying he has worked hard for his wealth yet Antonio tries to abuse his work, carrying on the “Ancient grudge”. Shylock strongly shows his hate once again by saying Antonio will not be forgiven, “Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him”. In his aside, Shylock has strongly shown his hate for Antonio and how terribly victimized he has been at Antonio’s hands.

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Later in the scene, Shylock is confronted by Antonio and in public, calls him the worst insults Antonio could possibly think of. Antonio calls him a “devil, clearly suggesting Shylock is evil. Antonio continues to verbally abuse Shylock about his personality, “A villain with a smiling cheek”. Antonio is talking about how Shylock has a pleasing look on his face that he can lend money for interest but underneath, he is not to be trusted. Antonio shows he is jealous of Shylock and Jews in general who were doing so well in Venice and shows this by verbally abusing Shylock in public, this public mistreatment of Shylock is a warning to all other Jews.

Shylock is used to Antonio publicly insulting him as he says, “many a time and oft”, meaning many times before has Antonio stood in public and treated him like he is nothing. Antonio “rates” Shylock meaning that he insults him in a public place and many times has he ignored it, “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug”. Antonio calls Shylock a “misbeliever, cutthroat dog” Shylock has even been spat on by Antonio showing how much respect Antonio has for Shylock and now Antonio wants his help.

After being treated like a dog by Antonio why must Shylock help this man who has no respect for him? In my opinion, I feel Shylock could get something over Antonio by helping him, In in-addition, when Antonio goes to insult Shylock in public Shylock, could then use the fact he helped Antonio which may show the public Shylock is a nice man and Antonio is the villain.

Jessica running away with a Christian Lorenzo will make Shylock embarrassed that his own daughter has betrayed their faith and himself. After all, Shylock goes through to support his belief his daughter runs away with the people who treat him like a dog. Shylock shows his devastation, “My own flesh and blood to rebel”. I feel for Shylock as Jessica was his own family and to betray him will leave Shylock nothing, also the Christians who shout verbal abuse at him every day will exploit this matter saying how even his own daughter does not care for him. It turns out Jessica also steals a diamond ring from Shylock which was his dead Wife’s, “a diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankcort”. Shylock has been betrayed by his daughter running off with a Christian and now stealing from him.

In Act Four, Scene 1, I will be studying the courtroom scene. Outside the courtroom, the Duke goes behind Shylock’s back before the case has started and calls Shylock a “stony adversary” to Antonio. It seems that the Duke already has made his assumption of Shylock by describing him as a stone to Shylock’s enemy Antonio. The Duke suggests that Shylock is going to do anything to punish Antonio as he has lost his money, for the Duke to talk about Shylock behind his back suggests he has already taken aside.

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I feel this may be because the Duke is a Christian and Shylock is a Jew therefore the Duke has already based it on that Shylock is a Jew and should not be liked, this is proved by the Duke calling him “an inhuman wretch”. This then carries on into the courtroom as it seemed the court was against Shylock and wanted him to take the money. This was shown by the high level of persuasion in court especially by the Duke, “touched with human gentleness and love, forgive a moiety of the principal”.

Shylock enters the court, and the Duke makes a personal appeal to him to not only spare Antonio’s life but also, in light of the merchant’s recent losses at sea, to reduce the amount of the debt. But Shylock will have none of it, demanding that the bond be executed. In the courtroom, it is clearly shown by Shylock that he wants to punish Antonio by stating he will take a “pound of flesh” from him.

Shylock is offered 6000 ducats to take but Shylock’s stubbornness takes control as it seems nothing that is said will change his mind, this is supported when Shylock says “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, tis mine and I will have it”. Later on in the Scene Portia enters dressed like a doctor of laws and proceeds with the bond, Shylock seems to win the case in which he shows this by praising Portia, ” O wise and upright judge, How much more elder art thou than thy looks”.

Later on, in the courtroom scene, Shylock shows how eager he is to take a pound of flesh from Antonio, this is clearly shown when Portia asks if there is a balance here to weigh the flesh in which Shylock immediately responds pulling out the balance to weigh the flesh. Portia also says it is his responsibility to stop Antonio’s wounds if he does bleed to death; however, Shylock questions Portia saying it is not in the bond showing he couldn’t care less if Antonio does bleed to death he just wants his revenge.

In the last part of the scene when Shylock is ready to take a pound of flesh from Antonio Portia reads from the bond stating he must take a pound of flesh but not one drop of Christian blood, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood, The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh'”. Once Shylock realizes that if he draws blood from the Christian he would be punished he wants to take the money, “pay the bond thrice And let the Christian go”.

However, Shylock can not do this which is strongly stated by Portia as it will mean breaking the bond in which he will have to be punished therefore he must go on and take a pound of flesh from Antonio which he demanded at first. At the very end of the scene when Shylock is preparing to take the pound of flesh Antonio demands Shylock to agree to change his religion in order to take a pound of flesh from him, this is a big thing for Shylock, after all, he goes through to back his religion he now must agree to become a Christian in order to take this pound of flesh from Antonio.

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In conclusion, I feel Shylock was a victim because of the ancient grudge that was brought out in the ‘Merchant of Venice’ showing the hate towards Jews from the Christians which lead to Shylock acting more as a victim more than a villain. However, some people especially the Elizabethan audience would see Shylock as a villain as he is a Jew and has a very evil side to him which is strongly shown by demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio.

Shylock is a victim is clearly shown in the courtroom scene when it seems everyone is against him for him being a Jew and then an undercover judge Portia very cleverly makers Shylock agree to take a pound of flesh then saying he must not draw a single drop of Christian blood in which Shylock then wants to take the money but can not because it will mean breaking the bond, this shows how Shylock was a victim especially in the courtroom.

Shakespeare gave Shylock a mixture of emotions making people question if he is a victim or villain but overall I feel there are more points that Shylock is indeed a victim strongly backed by the evil cruelty by the Christians towards Jews.

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Shylock: Victim or Villain?. (2021, Sep 28). Retrieved December 8, 2022, from