The Tragedy of Shylock, a Critical essay on Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

Topics: The Merchant of Venice, Portia, Shylock Pages: 6 (1994 words) Published: December 4, 2007
Raymond Schmit � PAGE * MERGEFORMAT �6�


The Tragedy of Shylock

I had not read the _Merchant of Venice_ before this class. All of my familiarity with the play was based on hearsay, and for some reason I got the idea in my heads that it was a tragedy. I thought that Shylock_did_ receive a pound of flesh from Antonio, but that it was just skin removed from his back. This gruesome image was what I was waiting for during my entire reading of the play. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Also, I found out 'Comedy' means 'Happy Ending.' And that 'Happy Ending' means 'No One Gets Their Skin Cut off for Defaulting on a Loan.'

But I found the work to be not as comedic and happy as that ending implies. This is a happy ending if you identify and sympathize with those characters that triumph in the end. But reading this play in this day and age, Shylock becomes a much more sympathetic character. We look at Shylock through our knowledge of injustice perpetrated against Jews for thousands of years. We know and love flesh and bone humane Jews in our everyday life, and if not that, at least we all enjoyed _Seinfeld._ Shylock becomes not a depository for our hatred as previous generations could interpret him, but as a human being who has been wronged. It allows me to look at _The Merchant of Venice_ not only as a Comedy of the Merchant, but as the Tragedy of Shylock.

Shakespeare's the _Merchant of Venice_ has endured for this long because of the fascinating character of Shylock. His contradictory presence of both human and devil, the familiar and the strange is what continues to draw audiences to this work. Leslie Fiedler devotes an entire chapter of his book _The Stranger in Shakespeare_ to this interesting character, a chapter entitled _The Jew as Stranger._ This criticism offers a wealth of information, some of it useful and insightful, some of it less so. But I shall use Fiedler's work as a guide to deconstructing the _Merchant of Venice_.

If Shylock is the victim, we must enumerate the instances where he is wronged. Upon his first entrance into the action of the play, he has already been called by Antonio a "misbeliever, cutthroat dog, and spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine, and all for use of that which is [his] own" (I.iii.108-110). Antonio seems to have an extended history of insulting and dehumanizing Shylock, and these actions of Antonio's seem cruel and unprovoked. He has insulted and spat upon Shylock, seemingly for practicing a business that provides sustenance for him and his family, and breaks no law of Venice. And does Antonio offer any defense to these accusations, or feel any remorse if he had, in truth, acted this way? Does he apologize to shylock now that he requires service from him? Not at all. He replies "I am as like to call thee again, to spurn thee too" (I.iii.127-128). Antonio feels completely justified in his treatment of Shylock, and show no signs of changing this disposition in the near future. Not even when necessity calls for him to patronize Shylock's previously scorned services does Antonio offer to patch things up with the Jew. He continues obdurately in is contempt. In this, the first appearance of Shylock, Shakespeare has already humanized more than demonized him. He has taken the opportunity to make this character not as much of clownish caricature as a true fleshed out relatable human being.

He is also allowed to further humanize himself in at least one additional speech. He remarks as follows:

"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies - and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?... If you prick us, do we not bleed?... And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."...

Bibliography: Fiedler, Leslie. The Stranger in Shakespeare. 1972, Stein and Day Publishing. New York.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 1598, London.
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