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Shylock: Victim or Villain?

By Joshha Oct 31, 2010 1316 Words
Task: Shylock: Victim or Villain?
From the book 'The Merchant of Venice.'
Written by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare sets his play within the 16th century. During this time Venice was a powerful city involved in trade and was a strong believer in the religion of Christianity. In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the only Jewish character, he is complicated, yet wise, and the one who gets tormented, mocked and humiliated in front of everyone.

The first time that the audience see Shylock is in Act 1, scene 3 during a business like discussion over borrowing money; three thousand ducats to be precise. Shakespeare may have chosen this to be the first sighting of Shylock for many reasons. One of the main ideas is that around the 16th century the Jews were money lenders, men who enjoyed making money and swindling the Christian men. Although they ran the risk of messing with the Christian law, greed and ignorance was present amongst many, including Shylock who ended up getting into grave trouble.

In some ways it becomes clear that Shylock is based on a stereotypical view of a Jew: that a Jew is obsessed with money. In addition the first scene is also one of the main scenes in which Shylock could be seen more as a victim. However Shylock doubts the security of Antonio’s ships, but he seems willing to lend the 3000 ducats. He tells the audience why he hates Antonio for a variety of reasons.

“I hate him for he is Christian. He lends out money gratis. Grudge I bear him. He hates our sacred nation”

This controversial and powerful statement is targeted towards the audience; Shylock is almost quoting it to tell his feelings and hatred towards Antonio. This is confusing as Shylock detests Antonio yet he still is willing to lend money to a Christian man whom he hates; Shakespeare may have done this to show Shylock a stereotypical view of a Jew. Then the audience is surprised again when Shylock insists that he can gain nothing from the deal except Antonio’s friendship, we can see this in lines 165-170, Shylock quotes

“Then meet me forthwith at the notary’s.
Give him direction for this merry bond,
And I will go and purse the ducats straight,
I’ll be with you.

Antonio seems content with Shylock’s bond but Bassanio is still uneasy about the unusual contract, he feels that Antonio has exchanged and traded with a villain.

“I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind”.

Bassanio feels that Antonio has been mislead and taken advantage of, but Antonio cannot understand the fear and discomfort Bassanio is showing. Shakespeare may have done this to Antonio to make him see unwise and completely out of character; trading with a Jew, accepting a bond with a Jew, talking to a Jew. This is very unlike a high class Christian man such an Antonio, so is greed present here? Shakespeare has almost left this interesting question for the audience to decide.

For the first time Shylock enjoys having power and the domination over the Christian, Bassanio. We can learn a lot about their motives and feelings towards each other. Shylock repeats everything that Bassanio says at the start and ends his statements with “…well.” This not only slows the pace of the conversation down but also shows that Bassanio is in a hurry to end the awkward ordeal. Whereas Shylock is enjoying his advantage for the first time, although this is short lived as Antonio insults Shylock to his face with Bassanio listening. Firstly, Antonio states he is “the devil” and then says he has an evil soul. Both these insults show the hate that Antonio has for Shylock.

After learning about Shylock and his corrupt relationship with Antonio, we can start to understand, that Shylock, in Act 2 Scene 5 is a controlling father and a demanding man, suggesting that he is more of a villain. Within the whole passage there is a mixture of insults and commands at Christians. To start with Shylock shouts, “What Jessica”, at certain intervals in his first speech. This makes him seem controlling and supports Jessica’s comments about how her house is “hell”. Jessica also states how her father is Satan. Shakespeare may have done this to suggest that Jessica is forced to follow the rules and remarks by her father. An example of this is when Shylock is leaving the house and Jessica is left alone. He tests her by commenting on how he might “return immediately”, we can tell that Shylock doesn’t trust Jessica by locking her in the house and leaving her whilst he is gone, this villainous behaviour leads to Shylock’s daughter, Jessica to rebel and marry a Christian man. Jessica may have done this to get her revenge on her so demanding and strict father, but what Jessica doesn’t know is that her father, Shylock only wants the best for her!

In act 2, scene 7, Shakespeare presents Shylock, he is seen as the victim who suffers the consequences for being a Jew. As the scene is told through the eyes of two Christians, Antonio and Bassanio, they both talk in a mocking tone and torment Shylock. With this, Shylock feels that he is a “defeated and humiliated man”. There are pauses throughout Shylock’s speech. He shouts “My daughter, oh my ducats, oh my daughter”. The use of the pauses and powerful tone of his voice, show that Shylock is shocked and very emotional. Shakespeare uses a parallelism on Shylock to portray his confusion and shock about what is happening. The repetition of “his” makes the audience realise how much he has lost.

The climatic trial scene is when the audience’s emotions switch with Shylock, then Antonio. Firstly, the audience emphasise for Shylock and feel that he is a victim, due to the duke in the courtroom. Shakespeare does this because it creates an atmosphere of biases towards Antonio before Shylock even walks in. For example the words that are used to describe Shylock are stony. This portrays that he is rock like and has no emotions for any other human. In addition, the duke doesn’t call Shylock by his name, only “the Jew”, however, the Duke refers to Antonio by his name, this again implies that the Duke is a biased and unfair man.

Shylock is offered his bond of 3,000 ducats from Bassanio. He refuses the bond as he likes to mock the Christians and tease them over the life of Antonio, “my deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty, and forfeit my bond”. This strong and powerful comment makes Shylock appear demanding and deprived of his own rights. This true but harsh comment made by the wise Shylock, shows he is a very demanding man; he feels judged by his religion, not by the law. He knows his mind and he knows what he is entitled to his bond. Shylock doesn’t want the money of a Christian man; he wants the pound of flesh that his bond states from the unfortunate Antonio. Later on in the court scene Shylock becomes the victim of the play. The moods change and Shylock is left open to mockery and the news of his successful bond backfires.

Overall Shylock is a character who in my opinion is too diverse and complex to be judged simply as a victim or a villain. His personality changes throughout and it’s this which makes him so intriguing, causing the audiences emotions to switch from one extreme to another. Throughout the play, he changes from a determined individual to a defeated Jew. Shylock is the character which makes the audience leave reflecting on how they treat others. In the end he can be seen as both a victim and a villain.

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