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Shylock – Victim or Villain?

In the Merchant of Venice, which is written by William Shakespeare, Shylock is presented in a variety of ways. For instance, some people regard Shylock as a villain, as he demands a pound of flesh. However, other people regard Shylock as a victim, as he loses everything (such as his ring, his daughter who ran away, and being made to convert to Christianity). The history of Jews is perhaps maybe the reason that that Jews are treated so badly, and perhaps the reason for the Christian’s distaste towards all Jews, including Shylock. Shylock is first introduced to the show when Bassanio and Antonio come to his help to lend money. Our first impressions of Shylock are villainous, as he says “I hate him, as he is a Christian!”.

Also, he mutters “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him!” which indicates that if Shylock has any chance to destroy Antonio, he will choose that option, without hesitation. The effect of using the word “I” makes the action very personal, and portrays a very directed and vicious verbal attack. Antonio also indicates that Shylock is a villain because he says “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, An evil soul, producing holy witness” which gives the impression of a villainous Shylock to the audience. When Shylock names the terms of the bond, he states it is a very villainous way. This is seen in “…Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken In what part of your body pleaseth me.”, which is a very harsh and cruel bond, and which could indicate Shylock’s desire for revenge.

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However, he can also be seen as a victim, because of a number of things which he is described as. Firstly, Antonio is stated to have taken Shylock’s business away from him, as well as lower the interest rate which is bad for business, as seen in “He lends out money gratis” and “Brings down the rate of usance”. Also, Shylock describes how Antonio “hates our sacred nation” which indicates very strongly that Shylock has done nothing wrong to get on Antonio’s bad side. Antonio also calls Shylock “Misbeliever, cut-throat dog” which is a very inappropriate term to use. Shylock also tells how Antonio “spat on [him]…” which is suggests that Shylock, and indeed all Jews are hated, and shunned. This line increases the sympathy that the audience has for Shylock, as his race is being mocked.

Shylock is seen as very villainous, as seen in the way he treats his servants and the way he treats his daughter as a slave, instead of a daughter. This is shown when he refers to her as “My Jessica!” which suggests to the audience that he is impatient with her, as well as does not treat her correctly, and regards her as a possession. This might be the reason that Jessica eventually decides to revolt. In this light, we see him as a villain, for thinking of treating his own daughter as a possession. Also, Launcelot paints a very bad impression of Shylock by saying “My master’s a very Jew” which means that Shylock is a demanding master. He also says “I am famished in his service:” indicating that Shylock treats all his servants very badly, leading to malnutrition, giving the audience the impression of as a villain to his servants. In another passage, Jessica says “Our house is hell” and is ” ashamed to be [her] father’s child!” pointing toward Jessica dismissing her own flesh and blood as a “merry devil” casting Shylock in a very bad light, and showing him as a very bad parent towards Jessica.

So the repetition of “devil” portrays Shylock in a very negative light. Also, Shylock is shown to have cared about his money more than he cared about his daughter as seen in: “my ducats, and my daughter! A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!” which gives the impression that Shylock cares about the money that his daughter stole, rather than the reason her daughter ran away. This casts Shylock in a bad light as this shows that he doesn’t care for his daughter as much. “And jewels, – two stones, two rich and precious stones…” indicate that Shylock knows more about his jewels than his daughter, maybe meaning that Shylock is selfish, and doesn’t even know his own daughter. However, some key events in act 2 lead to the audience feeling sorry for Shylock, such as his daughter leaving him, or perhaps that she hates Shylock so much that she has chosen to become a Christian, which is Shylock’s hated religion. This may have been a way to spite Shylock, which portrays Shylock as a victim instead.

The line above, which is “My ducats, and my daughter…two stones, two rich and precious stones” can also portray Shylock as a victim, as it lists all that he has lost, including very precious things to him. In Act 3, there are many crucial events that are factors of whether he is a victim or a villain. These both take place in the courtroom scene, where Shylock demands his pound of flesh, before a helpless Antonio. At first, in Shylock’s encounter with Salerio and Solanio, he calls Antonio a “beggar” and “a bankrupt” perhaps thinking that Antonio is even lower than Shylock, that perhaps now Shylock can settle the score with Antonio. This gives an image of revenge, which portrays Shylock in a negative light, meaning he isn’t forgiving. This is very anti-Christian, as Christians are meant to be forgiving, while Shylock is the opposite of this. This is another point on why Shylock is argued as a villain. The repetitive use of “let him look to his bond” suggests that all that Shylock has now is his revenge on Antonio, and his only desire is to punish Antonio.

This is further shown when Shylock has a long speech, saying “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” meaning that Shylock now just doesn’t care about the money, but he just wants to spite Antonio. Shylock also uses sarcasm to sound more villainous. This is shown when he says “The villainy you teach me, I will execute” which suggests that Shylock will use what he has learned of years of suffering, he will do the same to Antonio, and make Antonio feel Shylock’s pain. This indicates that Shylock is not forgiving anymore, and is just full of malice. “It shall go hard but I will better the instruction” indicates that Shylock will try his hardest to make sure he does the suffering to the best of his ability, indicative of Shylock’s cruelty towards Antonio. Because of a combination of these two lines, this portrays Shylock in even a more bad light towards the audience, and Shylock loses some more sympathy.

He is also shown to be very murderous, when he desires his daughter dead, as seen in this passage: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear!” To the audience, this shows how evil he is, even willing to kill his own flesh and blood. In the next line, Shylock is shown enjoying Antonio’s plight and is the only time so far he becomes lively again after the loss of his daughter. This is shown when Shylock exclaims “I thank God, I thank God! – Isn’t true, isn’t true?” and “I am very glad of it: – I’ll plague him I’ll torture him. The second line makes Shylock sound sadistic, as he plots (viciously) on how to punish Antonio, rather than just deal with a punishment that is light.

However, the audience has mixed feelings about Shylock and can see him as a victim. The first is when Shylock says “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses; mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies” which makes the audience feel very sorry for him, as he has lost many friends and money because of one person, all because of his religion, which he can’t do anything about. He uses sentence which becomes shorter, which will give a stronger impact on how the reader sees it as. Shakespeare also uses juxtaposition in the sentence “…cooled my friends, heated mine enemies” which suggests that instead of friends being warm towards Shylock, they become cold and distant to Shylock. This goes the same with the next phase, where Antonio is deemed to have made Shylock’s enemies angry.

This is further explained when Shylock says “fed with the same food, hurt with the same means…” which means that Jews and Christians are very similar, as they are both humans. This strikes the impression that Shylock and Antonio are perhaps very similar but now are arch enemies. Shylock wonders why Jews and Christians are then so different. This use of rhetorical questions creates a powerful impression on the audience, as this is seen as discrimination against Jews, something which is frowned upon now. Another section where Shylock is pitied is when Tubal tells Shylock of Jessica selling a ring for a monkey. The ring is shown to have sentimental value towards Shylock, as seen n “Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

This shows that Shylock is not as inhumane as we thought – he still has sentimental values for certain items such as that ring, as it represents the memories of his wife, and he would have never given it away for something so cheap. The courtroom scene is sometimes regarded as one of the most important and crucial scenes which take place in the Merchant of Venice, with regards to Shylock. Shylock is seen as very focused, and very vengeful upon Antonio when he says “But since I am a dog, beware my fangs” indicating that Antonio will not be let off lightly, and Shylock will be vicious with him. Here, he uses sarcasm to help state his point, as this gives a distinctive impression of Shylock being very vicious. Repetitive use of “I will have my bond.” This shows that Shylock is very set upon having his bond, and nothing else will distract him. When talking to the Duke, Shylock also uses cynicism and manipulates the Duke to help gain his goal. This is seen when he says “If you deny it, let the danger light Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!”.

This may seem very harsh, as he uses words to help fuel his desire for revenge. In another section, he says “more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I follow thus A losing suit against him.” This suggests that Shylock has always had this loathing of Antonio, which may appeal to some of the audience, as his hatred is understandable, however it might not be seen that way to some of the audience. Bassanio asks “Why dost thou whet thy knife so earnestly? To which Shylock replies “To cut the forfeiture from that bankrupt there.”. This line indicates that Shylock is so eager about the pound of flesh that he has already begun sharpening his knife in anticipation. Shylock is also seen to be crazed about getting his bond when he says “There is no power I the tongue of man To alter me. I stay here on my bond”. Shylock is also seen to be so desperate as to want to continue with the bond as he says “My deeds upon my head!” which means he does not care about anything that will happen to him after the deed is carried out, whether he will become punished or not.

Shylock is seen to be very cruel, and harsh towards Antonio, when he refuses to get a surgeon to try and stop Antonio’s wounds by saying “Is it so nominated in the bond?”. He is later is seen using devilish humour wanting to make Antonio even more stressed out when he says “I cannot find it; ’tis not in the bond.” In another instance, he takes sadistic pleasure in Portia having to uphold the law of cutting out Shylock’s flesh when Portia says “The law allows it, and the court awards it.” and Shylock says “Most learned judge! – A sentence! Come, prepare!”. However, a few things in the scene make us feel sorry for Shylock. These take place when the Judge is shown to be not neutral, and biased against Shylock. This is shown when the Judge says “A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty From any dram of mercy”. This description of Shylock makes the audience feel quite sorry for him, as he is being called this, without his knowledge. This also shows the Duke is being biased against Shylock, even though he has never met him before.

We also feel sorry for Shylock when Portia demands that he gives up “one-half of his goods; the other half comes to the privy coffer of the state” which means that Shylock will end up with nothing at the end. Antonio also deals a blow to Shylock saying that he has to forcefully convert to Christianity, which we nowadays regard as a very cruel and bad thing to do. Shylock responds by saying “I am not well: send the deed after me” Shakespeare uses different and imaginative language to help describe Shylock. When Shylock and Antonio are sealing the bond, Antonio refers to Shylock as “the devil…an evil soul… a goodly apple rotten at the heart”. He also refers to Shylock as a “misbeliever… cut-throat dog” which is a powerful language, linking that Shylock doesn’t believe in the correct religion or that he is very two-sided. Also, in the courtroom scene, instead of referring to Shylock by his name he calls him “jew”. This is seen when the duke says “… call the Jew into the court”.

In another instance, Gratiano calls Shylock “inexorable dog” which suggests that Shylock is no longer a person, he is a dog. Gratiano treats Shylock very harshly, by saying “Now, infidel, I have you on the hip” which suggests, that all along, the Christians value the Jews as something less, or inferior to them. This combination of language portrays Shylock as a villain. Through the following use of quotes and the use of language by Shakespeare, we can see how the different views of Shylock are portrayed. He may seem villainous at times, however, this can be argued that Shylock is traumatized over the loss of his daughter, and he maybe is justified over this. On the other hand, he appears to be very vicious and appears to have no mercy. From the combination of these two, Shylock has deemed a villain at certain points in the story, while at other times he is deemed a victim either by consequence of his actions or by his religious standing.

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Shylock - Victim or Villain?. (2021, Apr 30). Retrieved October 26, 2021, from