It is without doubt that William Shakespeare’s suspenseful play of The Merchant of Venice evokes complex feelings within a reader. Throughout the play, Shylock is portrayed as the antagonist, a miserable, cruel and prosaic figure menacing enough to endanger the happiness of Venetian citizens. At the same time, one feels a curious compassion for this character. In the 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice adaptation starring Al Pacino, Shylock is portrayed as a justifiably angry man: he is hated by Venetians; despised for his religion, culture and occupation; and betrayed by his daughter. Certainly, Shakespeare has succeeded in blurring the distinction between villain and victim.
Initially, Shylock is introduced where Bassanio seeks Shylock’s help and asks to borrow money from him in Antonio’s name. Shylock displays elements of hatred and belligerence in his refusal to forgive Antonio and Christians. This is evident in his speech: “How like a fawning publican he looks! / I hate him for he is a Christian” (Act 1, Scene 3). The fact that Shylock is 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 (“a pound of flesh” as the terms of a loan agreement), shows that he is devious and cunning.
Secondly, Shylock’s attitude towards money and human relationships is scrutinized when he’s response to his daughter’s (Jessica) elopement shows that he values his money more than his own blood. This is justified when Solanio tells us that Shylock screamed “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!” (Act 2, Scene 8). Next, Shylock mistreats Jessica by keeping her captive in her house. The fact that his daughter considers her home to be hell by calling Launcelot (Shylock’s servant) a “merry little devil” and also stating that her father is Satan emphasizes his villain nature.
Furthermore, Shylock is established as a villain in Act II Scene v when he orders Jessica about as if she were a servant: “Hear you me, Jessica / Lock up my doors and when you hear the drum…Nor thrust your head into the public street…” His interaction with his daughter mentions nothing about her well being as he only instructs her to look after the wellbeing of his house. This reiterates that “Shylock is a tyrannical and bloodthirsty villain” (bookrags.com) in every sense of the word.
On the contrary, when Shylock declares that he will not “eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you” (Act 1, Scene 3), one cannot help but sympathize with him for being disliked, punished and misunderstood because he is a Jew. In addition, he also endures torture and abuse in the form of anti Semitic from the majority of Venetian Christian as they refer to him as “the Devil”: “Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross / my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew” (Act 3, Scene 1). This clearly indicates that the Venetian Christians purposefully torment Shylock for their own pleasure.
Moreover, Shylock teaches the reader about Christian love and mercy by confronting his Christian accusers with three profound questions: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (Act 3, Scene 1). His meaningful quotes invoke a theme of the similarities between Jews and Christian as he continues in his speech in Act 3 saying: “Fed the same food, hurt with the same weapon, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means…as a Christian is…” As a result, it can be said that the purpose of Shylock’s passionate speech is designed to evoke the audience’s sympathy and it succeeded in doing so.
All arguments considered, critics agree that Shylock is The Merchant of Venice’s most noteworthy figure just by the fact that Shakespeare is able to introduce the reader to a bloodthirsty bogeyman that we immediately label as the villain. However, he strategically concludes the play by transforming the villain into the victim: the broken man humiliated in court, stripped of his wealth and forced to convert to Christianity. In essence the play highlights how a man may be the victim of injustice and yet not be a complete angel.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Roma Gill. New York: Oxford
Shakespeare, William. "Merchant of Venice". (Washington Square Press, New York, 1957) p. 30.
Shmoop Editorial Team. "Shylock in The Merchant of Venice" Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.