Should Shylock be shown pity or did he deserve how he was treated? Ever since Shylock was shown as a character by William Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice there have been many interpretations about him all throughout history. Some of these opinions are of the time are biased. Even different groups of people throughout the centuries have a different point of view about this man.
In the 19th century (Elizabethan times) Shylock had been portrayed by Shakespeare an outcast, both as a villain and a clown. This was believable to his audience because at the time Jews were persecuted as a lower class in society and isolated. They would of have a much simpler view that Christians were always more intelligent. There were not really any Jews living in England at this time. However, society has changed throughout the centuries, where different religions, race, etc., are no longer discriminated against, and Shylock in the modern day world may be seen as a victim.
Set in Venice, the most important trading centre in the world in Shakespeare’s time. The Jews were segregated from living alongside the Christians and under curfew for their movements at night. They were easily identified by the different clothes they wore. Many were moneylenders who charged interest for the privilege; this was considered to be a sin by Christians, who despised them for it.
Shylock, a devout Jew and moneylender, had always received ill-treatment from Christians. He appears to the audience in Act 1 Scene 3 when Bassanio and Antonio ask for the loan of 3,000 ducats. Firstly, we learn of his hatred for Christians and that of Antonio.
"I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis." (Act 1, Scene iii)
Shylock has the upper hand and is in control. The deviousness and slyness of his character is shown, the money is given through friendship, a bond but with the twisted element of not interest, but a ‘pound of a man’s flesh’ - Antonio’s. On the other hand, you could look at the act of revenge as understandable. In the past Antonio has spat on him, called him a dog and when reminded says to Shylock:
“I am as like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again.” (Act 1, Scene iii)
He takes away his profit by paying others debts. Now he wants to borrow money from him. Shakespeare may have wanted to show his audience how hypocritical people can be, just using them for their own gain with disrespect. Or did they see just evil in Shylock? Let us look further.
His daughter Jessica and his servant Launcelot both desert him. Why would both of them want to leave? Launcelot jokes:
“I should stay with the Jew my master, / who God bless the mark, is a kind of devil.” (Act 2, Scene ii)
Jessica is ashamed to be her father’s child. She wishes to disown her faith and elopes with Lorenzo, a close friend of Antonio, stealing both his money and jewels, on the night the Christians invite him to diner. So the Christians have not only deceived him but betrayed his trust. Did she just want to leave as she knew her father would never give her blessing to love a Christian? One reason she may have wanted to leave is because they feel that money means more to him than anything else not her happiness. As Shylock is reported to scream:
“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! …..” (Act 2, Scene viii)
It seems Shakespeare would have us believe it is his wealth as later Shylock wishes his daughter were dead at his feet with all his money and all the jewels she has stolen.
Nevertheless, we do see a more human side to Shylock, in Act 3 Scene i, his speech “……..Hath not a Jew eyes? ……….” in which he recounts all the times when Antonio and friends insulted him and tells that a Jew is like any man, he feels the same things. Also, that revenge is a human trait not just for Christians, so why shouldn’t a Jew do the same. Another time we see the feeling side of him is of his sentimentality of his wife’s ring which Jessica has traded.
"… I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: / I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (Act 3, Scene i)
Lastly, in the trial scene is when we see Shylock at his most murderous but then scolded. Shylock insists:
“The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, / Is dearly bought ‘tis mine and I will have it.” (Act 4, Scene i)
Despite pleads from the Duke, Bassino and Portia for pity on Antonio’s life Shylock insists on his pound of flesh. Furthermore, he will not show any mercy,
“On what compulsion must I? tell me that.” (Act 4, Scene i)
If he had he would be morally superior to Antonio. The audience is no longer on the side of Shylock. Shakespeare dramatically changes the plot when the bond is undone by Portia. The punishments Shylock receives are extremely cruel and severe; would they have been so cruel if he had been Christian? His wealth is distributed amongst his enemies. Finally, Antonio forces him to pay the ultimate humility of converting to Christianity. However, the Christians probably thought at that time that they were not merciless in sparing his life.
In my opinion, I do sympathise with Shylock. He may have been filled with hatred, vengeance, and murderous towards Antonio but who has made him this way? Shylock is a victim of circumstance. He has been discriminated against for being a Jew; he has suffered repeated abuse, ultimate humiliation from Antonio and his friends; he has lost his family and he has lost all of his possessions and wealth. The one thing he had left was his faith and they took that too.