The Merchant of Venice - Shylock: Villain or Victim?

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Many people are villainous in the way they behave. Their villainous acts may be attributed to their desire to destroy others and in turn elevate themselves to a higher financial or social level. However, the root cause of their villainy may be a response to the treatment they have endured at the hands of others. In short, they have been taught villainy, rather than it being an integral part of their personality. In such instances, revenge can be a key motivator in inspiring them to act in a villainous way. It is on such occasions, where villains have themselves been exposed to villainy, that the distinction between villain and victim becomes blurred. Victims are usually characterised in the way that they are persecuted for circumstances, which are beyond their control for example their appearance. In plays and novels, the victim is sometimes a character included to highlight the prejudices and pre-conceptions of the social climate in which the play or novel was written. In the ‘Merchant of Venice' it can be argued that Shylocks character undergoes a metamorphosis from villain to victim. However, in this essay I hope to discuss whether in fact Shylock can be defined as either villain or victim and to form an opinion of what Shakespeare intended.

First we shall look at the aspects of the text that portray Shylock as a villain. We are first introduced to Shylock in Act I Scene iii where we learn of his usury. It is in this scene that Bassanio seeks Shylock out and asks to borrow money from him in Antonio's name. Also in this scene do we learn of Shylock's hatred for Antonio and the Christians: ‘ How like a fawning publican he looks! / I hate him for he is a Christian; ' (Act I Scene iii)

Shylock also displays elements of belligerence in his refusal to ever forgive the Christians. We also learn of his intent regarding Antonio's life: ‘ If I can catch him once upon the hip, / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.' (Act I Scene iii)

Shylock also shows himself to be devious and cunning by hiding his hatred beneath a façade of friendship in order to entice Antonio to become indebted to him, not just with money but with his life. Antonio is very naïve regarding the terms of the bond taking the ‘pound of flesh' clause to be a show of friendship not hatred: ‘ The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.' (Act I Scene iii)

Perhaps he receives the terms of the bond in this manner because he is confident that he will be able to repay the bond. Shylock feels justified in exacting revenge upon Antonio because he blames him for all his problems and is bitter about the manner in which Antonio has treated him in the past. He is also resentful of the ridicule and torment of his race by the Christians. Through the bond he feels he will be able to avenge the treatment of his ‘clan': ‘ To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, / it will feed my revenge…the villainy you teach me I will execute, / and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. ' (Act III Scene i)

He says that he will copy the example of the Christians showing he is no better than they are even though he complains about their behaviour towards him.
When Jessica runs away, this fuels Shylock's hatred for Antonio: ‘ I'll plague him; I'll torture / him: I am glad of it. ' (Act III Scene i)
It is during the trial scene and the scenes immediately preceding it that his obsessive hatred towards Antonio now becomes apparent. In Act III Scene iii his repetition of ‘ I'll have my bond ‘ shows him to be openly aggressive, he warns those who have treated him as ‘a dog' to ‘beware my fangs'. This is emphasised greatly by the contrast between his and Antonio's behaviour. Antonio has realised Shylock will not listen to reason and has resigned himself to his fate: ‘ Let him alone: / I'll follow him no more with bootless prayer.' (Act III Scene iii)

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