“There is no doubt that Shylock is a cunning and vengeful man, but nothing can justify the treatment he receives at the hands of the Christians.” How far do you agree with this statement? Does Shylock deserve his punishment?
Shylock is punished by the Venetian court for seeking to end Antonio’s life. He is charged under a Venetian law (of Shakespeare’s creation) and he is forced to give up his wealth and to beg the Duke to spare him his life. Viewed like this it seems simple enough; Shylock broke a Venetian law and, as a consequence, is punished. However, Shylock’s case is far from simple. Antonio’s demand that Shylock should renounce his Judaism and become a Christian and his insistence that Shylock should will his money to the Christian Lorenzo who lately stole his daughter1, add up to much more than punishment for wrongdoings. Moreover, the treatment of the Jew by the supposedly merciful Christians, although readily accepted by a less tolerant Elizabethan society, seems, to a 21st century audience with its knowledge of the holocaust, to be cruel to the point of humiliation. The question to be answered is this: is Shylock’s complete humiliation a fair punishment for his crimes?
Shylock does himself no favours. On the surface, he appears to be a money orientated, avaricious character who is also driven by a hatred of Christians and particularly of Antonio:
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis2
He seems to be driven by an unhealthy desire for revenge, to feed fat the ancient grudge3 he has for Antonio. The merry sport4 devised by Shylock is nothing more than a devious trap set in order to catch [Antonio] on the hip5. Furthermore, his reaction to Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo does not centre on the loss of his daughter, but on the loss of his ducats:
I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin.6
However, his anger and his hatred do require some context. What Shakespeare never does is present Shylock as a two dimensional pantomime villain. The previous quotations, taken in isolation, transform Shylock into a monster. He is not. He is, like all of us, a flawed human being, subject to fits of rage, bouts of introspection and moments of compassion.
Shylock’s hatred of Antonio, and Christians in general, is a result of the perpetual state of fear that existed between the two races at the time the play was written. The Christian community treated Jews with disdain partly as a consequence of Jewish involvement in Christ’s crucifixion. Laws existed that forbade Jews from owning property or engaging in any profession. They were outcast by Christian society but had nowhere to go; Israel did not exist as a state until after the Second World War. The only path open to them was usury, or money lending which, of course, was a forbidden practice for Christians and, thus, frowned upon, leading to further animosity. It is noted ruefully by Shylock that when push comes to shove and the Christians need money, they hypocritically come to him despite the fact that they have rated me / About my monies and my usances7. It is during this speech in Act One Scene Three that Shylock lists the wrongs that Antonio has done to him, giving some justification for Shylock’s loathing:
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine.
You that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold8.
The language is powerful, persuasive and poetic. In the play, Shylock speaks in a mixture of verse and prose and in this passage, he appears to be reciting a rehearsed speech, reeling off Antonio’s ‘crimes’ which Antonio fully admits he would repeat. It is hard not to feel sorry for Shylock.
Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s profligacy does appear cruel. However, his daughter has run off with a...
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