In The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, there appears Shylock. He is a Jew, that much we are told in the cast list. But, as the play unfolds Shylock is seen to be the villain. He is portrayed as being cold, unbending, and evil. But is he? Is Shylock really the antagonist in this play or can he also be viewed as a persecuted individual who resorts to revenge only after he has been pushed too far?
To fully understand the character of Shylock we must first look at Elizabeathen attitudes towards Jews. In the sixteenth century, Jews were rarely if ever seen in England. In the Middle Ages Jews had fled to England to escape persecution in France under the Normans. They were granted a charter in England by Henry I in return for a percentage of their profits from trade and moneylending. It is here that the stereotype of Jews lending money was started. Because of the tariffs placed on them by the crown Jews took to charging high-interest rates to secure profits for themselves. Here we see echos of Shylock with his usury. Finally, the Jews were ordered out of England in 1254 by Edward I. They did not return to England until the latter half of the seventeenth century. (Lippman 3-4) Jews were also viewed as devils by Elizabethan audiences. Old stories portrayed them as “blood-thirsty murders” that poisoned wells and killed Christian children for their bizarre Passover rituals. (Stirling 2:1) These were the stereotypes which Shakespeare’s audience held in regard to Jews. Shakespeare himself had never seen a Jew but he goes to great lengths to humanize Shylock even while perpetuating the stereotype.
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In Act 1:3, before Shylock ever says a word to Antonio, he lets the audience know in an aside that he hates Antonio. He hates him for having hindered him in business and for having humiliated him in public by spitting on him and calling him names such as “dog” and “cutthroat Jew”. Shylock tells the audience he hopes to exact revenge on Antonio both for his own humiliation and for the persecution that the Jews have long suffered at the hands of the Christians. I hate him for he is a Christian;. . . If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. He hates our sacred nation . . . Curséd be my tribe if I forgive him (I, iii,40-49) Shylock then tells Antonio that he wants to be friends with him and will conclude the bond for a pound of flesh as a “merry sport.” In the second act, however, he still seems to bear a deep grudge against the Christians, for he tells Jessica that he is going in hate and not in friendship to dine with them. “But yet I’ll go in hate to feed upon The prodigal Christian. . . .I am right loath to go.” (II,v,14-16) After Jessica’s elopement, Shylock suspects Bassanio and Antonio of abetting her escape, and this suspicion increases Shylock’s animosity toward Antonio.
We learn later in the play that Antonio has personally rescued a number of debtors from Shylock’s bonds when Antonio says “I oft delivered from his forfeitures; Many that have made moan to me.” (III, iii,23-24) We also discover that Shylock cannot or will not explain his reasons for demanding Antonio’s flesh. “But say it is my humour,” is all the reason he is able to show. The sum of Shylock’s motives for hatred is gi! ven in the rarely quoted lines before the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes”: “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies-and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” (III,i,49-54) (Lippman 2)
Shylock himself is an alien in a society geared towards Christians. His clothes, customs and race make him an object of scorn in Venetian society. We as a modern audience are bound to feel some sympathy for him. When Jessica runs away from home we realized that Shylock’s most trusted prop has failed him, he placed absolute confidence in his daughter with his house and wealth. The fact that he cries out for his ducats, as well as his daughter, should not obscure the sense of keen personal loss he feels. ” I say my daughter is my own flesh and blood.” (III,i,34) We also see this when Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica has traded one of his rings for a monkey. Shylock’s lamentation for his lost turquoise ring that he had “of Leah when I was a batchelor,” shows us that indeed he does have sentimentality in him and he wouldn’t have parted with that ring “for a wilderness of monkeys.” (III,i,110-113) Here Shakespeare attaches a small snippet of humanity to a character seen as inhuman for the most part. However, our sympathy for Shylock does not reach its height until the famous speech:
Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? (III,i,54-59)
At this point in the play, it seems that Shylock is no different from any other man except for the fact that his religion has made him an outcast from society. Our understanding of this fact does not lessen the horror we feel at his cruelty towards Antonio, but we are able to remember that the passion for revenge is a common human failing and not the unique characteristics of a ferocious and inhuman monster as the Elizabeathans believed. (Lippman 3)
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