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Merchant of Venice - Shylock

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Shylock is “The Merchant of Venice”

In William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice," there are many themes, symbols and words alike which take on a complex and dual nature. Not only can lines in the play be interpreted by the audience in multiple ways, they are meant to have multiple meanings. This duality can be seen in the characters as well. Shylock is portrayed as both a victim and a villain and our sense of him evolves as his character is revealed to us as “The Merchant of Venice.” We are first introduced to Shylock in Act I Scene III when we learn about his job as a moneylender. During this period of time, Jewish people were very limited in the jobs they could obtain; they were looked down upon by, and on the fringe of, society. While the Christians could lend money, it was immoral and against church rule for them to charge any type of interest, it was usurious. However, there was nothing to forbid Jewish lenders from making a living by charging interest. They did so to survive and were despised for such an “immoral and disgraceful” practice. Bassanio goes to Shylock for a loan to be given in Antonio's name. Upon Antonio’s entering, Shylock displays his disdain for Antonio in an aside, “How like a fawning publican he looks! / I hate him for he is Christian, / but more for that in low simplicity / he lends out money gratis…” (1.1.41-45). His hatred is dual in nature; Antonio lends money without interest threatening the existence of his job as a moneylender. Also, Antonio is prejudiced against the Jews and has humiliated and insulted Shylock publicly for both his lending practices and his religion. This is revealed when Shylock asks Antonio why he should lend money to someone who has, “…rated me / About my moneys and my usuances…” (1.3.117-118) “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog / And spet upon my Jewish Gaberdine…” (1.3.121-122). Shylock could not retaliate the prejudice, and had to tolerate the abuse, "Still have I borne it with a patient shrug / for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe" (1.3.119-120). This portrays Shylock as a person who is victimized and helpless against the prejudice and racism present in that society. Antonio asks that Shylock see the loan not as a lending of money to a friend, but “rather to thine enemy, / Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty” (1.3.145-146). Shylock is now given power over the fate of the loan, Bassanio’s desired pursuit of Portia and the choice of bond for the loan. It is a chance for Shylock’s to seek retribution not only from Antonio personally, but on a larger scale Christian society as a whole. To further advance his position, he speaks to Antonio as a friend, "I would be friends with you, and have your love, / Forget the shames that you have stained me with" (1.3.149-150). Shylock’s cynically toned change of heart toward Antonio makes it clear his feigned friendship may, quite probably, be motivated by ulterior interests. At this point, there is a substantial shift in the character of Shylock from being that of a victim to that of a villain. Shylock is not interested in receiving mere interest on the money he lends, he wants a redemption and revenge for himself and his people which no amount of money will satisfy for him. The selfish, greedy, usurous Jew many want to make Shylock out to be is no longer being guided by a monetary beacon. He is now seemingly overtaken by a cruel morbid desire for revenge. He has become passionately cunning, malicious and vengeful, “…let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, [possibly as opposed to his slightly darker Jewish flesh] to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” (1.3.160-163). He reveals the depths of his discontent and his desire for vengeance when he says, "I will have the heart of him if he forfeit" (3.2.125-126). It is not long before Shylock receives news from Tubal that some of Antonio’s fleet has come upon misfortune and he has no choice but to break his bond. Shylock declares, "I am very glad of it. I'll plague him, I'll / torture him, I am glad of it" (3.1.115-116). The arrest of Antonio for failure to timely pay his bond solidifies what is lawfully owed to and bought and paid for by Shylock. There is no doubt that Shylock has every intention of collecting this bloody bond, his obsessive hatred for Antonio becomes apparent, “I’ll have my bond. Speak not against my bond. / I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond…” (3.3.5-6). Shylock has transformed from discriminated repressed Jew to despised money lender to murderous vengeful sinner. During the trial scene, Shylock clearly enjoys the forthcoming bond which is due to him, he whets his knife on his shoe in the courtroom so that he can, “cut the forfeiture from [Antonio]” (4.1.124). Shylock is unyielding in his desire. The pound of flesh is worth more to him than ten times the amount of ducats owed. More so, he rejects any appeal to the divine sanction of mercy, and believes to have his bond is lawfully and morally “right.” Shylock asks the Duke, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” (4.1.90) and states, “I crave the law" (4.1.213). Even though he is legally entitled, Portia tries to appeal to his moral obligation to show mercy. He is not moved by this, and readies to collect his bond. At this point, the law is turned on Shylock. Portia tells Shylock he may have his bond, but that, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood…if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (4.1.319-324). Shylock, realizing his desired pound of flesh will not be his bond, agrees to accept the payment of the ducats. To this, Portia replies, “The Jew shall have all justice. Soft, no haste! / He shall have nothing but the penalty.” Further, Portia declares, “It is enacted in the laws of Venice, / If it be proved against an alien / That by direct or indirect attempts / He seeks the life of any citizen…the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the Duke.” Shylock is forced to his knees to beg the Duke for Mercy. He is again, the “Jew dog.” His life as it is a physical existence was spared. Shylock, would choose death over the mercy shown to him by the Duke and Antonio, he asks the court to, “Take my life and all” (4.1.389). In granting him to keep half of his goods, Antonio takes his identity, his religion, his heart and soul. Antonio seeks that Shylock, “presently become a Christian; / The other, that he do record a gift, / Here in the court, of all he dies possessed / Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter” (4.1.403-406). Life and Christianity have defeated Shylock, they have taken his daughter and given him a Christian son to which he is bound to leave everything he owns. Shylock has been stripped of any power he may have once, if fleetingly, had. He has been broken down and stripped of his “merciless” religion. He is no longer villainous, he is piteous. Shylock evolved and transformed as a character, before us as an audience just as our feelings, perceptions and sympathies for him.

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