Shylock: Victim or Villain

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Throughout the play, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare cultivates the idea of “Shylock the Jew” being both a villain and a victim each depending on the reader’s interpretation of the play. 16th century Venice was largely Roman Catholic and Christian. I think in correctly interpreting the play, we have to take a look at what influences Shakespeare may have had in devising Shylock’s character.

In 16th century Europe, there was a massive revolt called the Reformation led by Saxon Monk named Martin Luther. The Reformation divided the Christians of Western Europe into Protestant churches and the Catholic Church. Catholic Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s teachings, but other individuals had already begun to question the Catholic churches’ ideologies. Jewish people were exiled from many European countries to include Shakespeare’s home, England. In many countries, Jewish people were mistreated, exiled, and made to either convert to the religion of that particular region or be killed. They were also progressively restricted to slums called ghettos.

When Shylock is introduced, it is made clear that he is a Jewish man in a volatile situation. Shylock has loaned money to Antonio, a Christian, and states, "He hath disgraced me...and what's his reason? I am a Jew” (3.1.323). He comes across as bold without shame, rudely self-assertive, and cruel. He appears to be the obvious antagonist and villain in the play. Shylock contends that the good Christian, Antonio, has “disgraced” and “hindered” him, laughed at his financial windfalls and that if Antonio cannot pay his debt, he would take a pound of his flesh instead. He is seemingly filled with vengeance when he declares to the messenger from Venice, Salerio, “To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (3.1.323). He obviously has no use for a pound of Antonio’s flesh, but he’s callous and flippant enough to suggest that he’d just use it for bait which leads me to believe...
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