Shylock in the Light of Secondary Sources
“The Merchant of Venice” was first performed in 1597 and the four hundred year period between then and the present day has seen many diverse portrayals of Shylock. Shylock, over the years, has changed from a comical monster, to a complex villain, to a sympathetic victim, each era developing a different aspect of Shakespeare’s villain. Shylock provokes a response of fascination and respect. He is a complex villain, a twisted product of an anti-Semitic society whose personality has been reduced to malevolence and vengefulness through the ill-treatment he has suffered at the hands of the frivolous and superficial Venetians.
He clings devoutly to his Jewish faith while cleverly scheming revenge against those who have wronged him. Shylock’s intellect shows that he is above the derogatory names and petty insults heaped upon him by the Venetians. He is eloquent and calm, losing control only once in the play when he misses his daughter and cries out “Oh my daughter! O my ducats! ” He makes powerful speeches demonstrating an intellect that wins the audience’s respect when he challenges the Gentiles by asking “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Shylock is also remarkably clever at outwitting his enemies verbally.
He turns the insults he has suffered back on his persecutors in Act III Scene I when he asks “Hath a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats? ” His clever verbal replies are also useful when he defends himself against the court in Act IV Scene I when Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love? ” Shylock replies with “Hates any man the thing he would not kill? ” This demonstrates Shylock’s intelligence drawing a response from the audience of respect and admiration.
Other examples of Shylock’s intelligence are abundant in the play. Shylock, in effect, manipulates Antonio into signing away his life through “a merry sport. ” Antonio’s naive stupidity is contrasted sharply with Shylock’s cleverness as, after signing a contract permitting Shylock to kill him, he exclaims “The Hebrew will turn Christian he grows kind. ” Shylock also speaks reasonably to his enemy when discussing the loan. He says “Signor Antonio, many a time and oft in the Rialto you have rated me about my moneys and my usances.
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug” Act I Scene III. He demonstrates to the audience his clever manipulation of Antonio as Shylock provokes him into an angry, uncontrolled outburst: “I am like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too”. This is hardly a clever tactic to use when asking for a loan. The vindictiveness of Shylock’s enemies and the ill-treatment Shylock suffers, are clearly demonstrated, eliciting empathy from the audience and understanding his vengefulness.
Shylock’s vengefulness is central to the play’s plot. His mission from the start is to get revenge on the person who has abused him, his nemesis, Antonio. He tells the audience in Act III Scene I: “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge which I bear him. ” Rather than being a motiveless, evil monster, Shylock’s reasons behind his hatred for Antonio are clearly stated in Act III Scene I “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains… and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Shylock makes it clear that it is the ill-treatment of Gentile society that has made him what he is as he clearly states to Salerio and Solanio “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it will go hard but I will better the instruction” Act III Scene I.
His suffering has damaged Shylock as a person and he has become as intolerant as the society that despises his religion. In Act III Scene III he says to Antonio, “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hasdt a cause, but since I am a dog beware my fangs. ” Even Antonio eventually acknowledges that Shylock has good reason to hate him, “He seeks my life, his reason well I know. As a result of his ill-treatment, Shylock clings more closely to the faith Venice despises. He justifies his persecution of Antonio as almost a religious quest since Antonio persecutes Shylock because of his religion: “He hath… scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains. ” Shylock sees that the Christians that surround him are hypocritical and superficial as shown at the trial Act IV Scene I when the a newlywed Christian husband declares, “I have a wife whom I protest I love, I would she were in heaven so she could entreat some power to change this currish Jew. Shylock remembers his daughter who steals from him, betraying the Jewish faith by marrying a Christian and spending his money recklessly.
Shylock exclaims, “These be the Christian husbands”, as a reaction to seeing how fickle they are. The Christians degrade his religion calling him “dog Jew” or simply “Jew”, offensively stripping him of his name and mocking his religion; as a result he justifies his behaviour through his faith: “by our holy Sabbath I have sworn to have the due forfeit of my bond. Shylock’s devoutness was reflected in the 1814 production of “The Merchant of Venice” by Edmund Kean. Kean modernised the play by introducing a black beard instead of the traditional red one linking Shylock to the treacherous, biblical Judas.
Kean objected to the fiendish caricature of Shylock and emphasised his role as someone who, from religious persecution, becomes an avenger. Records of the play tell us that “His voice swells and deepens at the mention of his sacred tribe and ancient law. While his Shylock was still a villain there was recorded the “damaged greatness” of a Shylock “endowed with a large measure of dignity and humanity. ” This Shylock contrasted with the old style of performing Shakespeare’s villain as a comical monster without credibility. Thomas Doggett in 1709 played Shylock with a “bloody designation of cruelty and mischief” which was well received and thought of as good quality comedy rather than a complex play examining issues of racism and revenge.
The Edmund Kean portrayal is a more modern response to Shylock backing up the idea that Shylock is a complex villain with a motive for revenge, not blinded with bloodlust. The cultural context is another important aspect to the play. The anti-Semitism of the play is a controversial issue but it is notable that shortly before the first performance of “The Merchant of Venice”, Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” had enjoyed longstanding popularity. This play involves Barabas, a Jew living in Malta, refusing to give half of his estate to the Crown as tribute to Turkey.
When as a result, his estate is confiscated Barabas proceeds to go on a killing spree poisoning an entire convent. However, the play satirises Christianity and Barabas dies screaming while being boiled alive in a cauldron of steaming water which says more about what Marlowe thought of the Christian audience than what he thought about Jews. It is also worthy of notice, that only fifty-eight years later, the Jews were allowed back into England where they had been expelled from over three hundred years before.
Neither Shakespeare, nor Marlowe, nor the audience of either “The Jew of Malta” or “The Merchant of Venice” had ever seen a Jew. This is significant as neither of the plays are strictly anti-Semitic, both plays satirise Christianity and humanise the Jew by giving him a motive; in “The Jew of Malta” Barabas is made penniless by the Head of State, in “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock is victimised and ill-treated by his own daughter.
As the Jews were also re-admitted back into England shortly after the plays were first performed, they are more likely to reflect changing attitudes than zealous anti-Semitism. This can also be demonstrated as the story on which the play is based was Ser Giovanni’s “Il Pecorone” which contained a Jew who also lent money in return for a pound of flesh and was thwarted from exacting the penalty because he was not entitled to any blood in the contract. However, the Jew in “Il Pecorone” had no motive for hating his intended victim.
Shakespeare changes this to a longstanding hatred between Antonio and Shylock, giving Shylock a motive as there is no doubt that Antonio is the aggressor in the hostility as demonstrated by Shylock in Act I Scene III as he says “Fair Sir, you spit on me Wednesday last, you spurned me such a day, another time you called me dog. ” Also, Shakespeare adds a daughter, Jessica, who betrays the Jewish faith by stealing from her father and marrying a Christian, one of Antonio’s friends.
This gives Shylock another motive and makes the audience empathise with him. Shakespeare humanises Shylock, supporting the response from the audience that Shylock is a persecuted victim who in turn persecutes his enemies and is more than a monster eager for blood. Later criticisms of the play also show a change in attitudes towards the character of Shylock. William Hazlitt in 1831 was sympathetic with the view that Shylock is not simply a bloodthirsty monster, and praised the fact that “the persecutor and the victim changed places. In other words, his response was similarly, that Shylock was a credible villain with a real motive for revenge. Hazlitt stated that Shylock is “hardened against the contempt of mankind” and possesses a “deep sense of justice mixed up with the gall and bitterness of his resentment. ”
Hazlitt recognises that Shylock’s character is a result of the intolerance he has encountered and feels justified in pursuing Antonio “stung to madness by repeated, undeserved provocations. Hazlitt clashes with Elmer Stoll who states that Shylock attempts to provide a “justification for an inhuman purpose” and that Shylock eventually “abandons the moral highground. ” Stoll argues that Shylock simply goes too far in his revenge and alienates the audience by his twisted bloodthirstiness. Hazlitt however, dwells more deeply on the reasons for why Shylock behaves with malice towards Antonio and as a result supports the response that Shylock is a complex villain with a character that goes deeper than that of a comical villain.
Shylock has been received differently by different audiences, provoking varying responses. He can never be seen as a sympathetic victim as he is too cruel and enthusiastic in his pursuit of Antonio. Neither is he a shallow, vampire-like monster with no credibility as his sufferings and religious devotion humanise him. His real character lies between these extremes, a complex, twisted villain provoked by an intolerant society into making his nemesis, Antonio, pay the ultimate price.