The Character of Shylock in Merchant of Venice

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The Character of Shylock in Merchant of Venice

Few characters created by Shakespeare embodies pure evil like the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a usurer and a malevolent, blood-thirsty old man consumed with plotting the downfall of his enemies. He is a malignant, vengeful character, consumed with venomous malice1; a picture of callous, unmitigated villainy, deaf to every appeal of humanity2. Shylock is the antagonist opposite the naive, essentially good Antonio, the protagonist; who must defend himself against the "devil" Shylock. The evil he represents is one of the reasons Shakespeare chose to characterize Shylock as a Jew, as Jews of his time were seen as the children of the Devil, the crucifiers of Christ and stubborn rejecters of God's wisdom and Christianity.

However, when Shakespeare created Shylock, he did not insert him in as a purely flat character, consumed only with the villainy of his plot. One of the great talents that Shakespeare possessed, remarks Shakespeare analyst Harrold R. Walley, was his ability to make each key character act like a real, rational person. Walley said of all of Shakespeare's characters, hero or villain, that "Their conduct is always presented as logical and justifiable from their point of view3." To maintain the literary integrity of the play, "Shakespeare is under the necessity of making clear why a man like Shylock should be wrought to such a pitch of vindictive hatred as to contemplate murder4." His evil must have some profound motivation, and that motivation is the evil done to him. Shylock is not an ogre, letting lose harm and disaster without reason. He was wronged first; the fact that his revenge far outweighs that initial evil is what makes him a villain. Beneath Shylock' villainy, the concept of evil for evil runs as a significant theme through the play.

In order to understand the concept of evil for evil, one must examine the initial evil, aimed at Shylock, through...
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