How Far Is Shylock a Character for Whom We Can Feel Sympathy? How Would a Contemporary Audience's Response to Him Differ from That of an Audience in Shakespeare's Time?

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Throughout William Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice, there is a strong theme of prejudice. Portia has to deal with prejudice against her sex, the Prince of Morocco has to deal with prejudice against his race but the character that is most discriminated against is Shylock. He is hated for being a Jew and a money-lender, but Shakespeare has not made Shylock a character easy to sympathise with. He appears to be mean and cruel and it seems as though he loves money above all things. However during the play there are moments when Shakespeare gives Shylock speeches which show his humanity. In these moments, although at the time it was written there was little tolerance of Jews, the audience is made to feel sorry for him. Shakespeare has created a character that the audience's feelings will change for by the minute.

When the play was written the audience would have immediately disliked Shylock on the basis of his religion and occupation, however nowadays when religious prejudice is not nearly as strong we still find him an unpleasant character. One of the main things which makes him seem unpleasant is his greed and love of money. His first words are actually "Three thousand ducats; well", perhaps a method of Shakespeare's to show the audience immediately what is most important to Shylock. Later on in the first scene, when Antonio enters to talk to him about lending Bassanio money Shylock says to himself; "I hate him for he is a Christian;

But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice"
This shows that Shylock puts his money before his religion. He says he hates Antonio because he is a Christian (and so an immediate enemy of the devout Jew) but more than that he hates him because he lends out money for no fee and so takes business away from Shylock. He also puts his money before his daughter, Jessica. When she runs away with Lorenzo she takes some of her father's money and we hear from Solanio and Salerio that Shylock runs out into the street shouting; "My daughter! O my ducats!" He repeats the two phrases until they become confused, and it is clear that the money is more important to him than Jessica. Shakespeare emphasises the confusion in Shylock's mind between his ‘daughter' and his ‘ducats' by using alliteration. The only time when money seems less important to Shylock is in the court scene when he repeatedly refuses money so that he can carry out his bond, which is to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body for not repaying the three thousand ducats he was lent.

This is the other characteristic that Shakespeare gives Shylock which makes him so unlikeable; his need for revenge. When his daughter runs away he is more interested in making her pay for her disobedience than getting her home safely, he says to Tubal; "I would my daughter were dead at my foot ... would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!" It is made clear early on why Jessica feels the need to run away. When she talks to Launcelot she says "Our house is hell" and then later; "To be asham'd to be my father's child!

But though I am daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners."
She is obviously ashamed to be associated with Shylock and tries to show Launcelot that she is not like him, and when she says "Farewell; and if my fortune be not cross'd
I have a father, you a daughter, lost."
Her language shows how much she longs to leave the house and escape from her father. Although there are times in the play when it is obvious that Shylock loves her, it is easy for the audience to understand why living with him would be unbearable.

His hatred for Antonio is also obvious and it is so strong that he refuses all offers of money so that he can cut off a pound of his flesh. In Act 3 Scene 1 Shylock makes his famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, and it is probably at this point that the audience feel most sympathetic towards him,...
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