Shylock: Victim or Villain

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Shylock- victim or villain is very hard to answer. Because Shylock is both victim and villain. Sometimes he can be evil, conceited and vengeful, but other times he is an abused and victimized character. Perhaps Shakespeare put Shylock in his play not just as a scapegoat but also as a moral lesson the audience can recognize. The lesson to be taught would only be understood by the high society audience of the sixteenth century, those who had received some sort of education. That lesson was: don’t judge a book by its cover.

The first evidence we have of Shylock being a villain is when we see him playing games with Bassanio, one of Antonio’s friends and a Christian. He refuses to give him a straight answer as to lending him three thousand ducats, which he requires to seek the hand in marriage of Portia. He says: ” Three thousand ducats, well, for three months, well, Antonio will be bound, well”. Shylock is probably wallowing in his temporary power over a Christian. Since this is the first time the audience has met him we are led to believe that Shylock is not a pleasant character.

More evidence of this is presented when Shylock comments about Antonio being a ‘good’ man. When he realizes there has been a misunderstanding between him and Antonio over what exactly he was referring to when he said ‘good’ he quickly changes his tone to an apologetic one. He is anxious that Bassanio borrows the money so Antonio will be in his debt, also at this point Shylock starts speaking in prose. When Shakespeare wrote in prose it sometimes symbolized an inferior character.

Shylock blatantly shows he is anti-Christian when he say things such as “I hate him for he is a Christian”. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter and Lancelot his servant both dislike him. Lancelot grumbles about being “famished in his service”, and complains that Shylock is “a kind of devil”. It is obvious Jessica does not enjoy living with Shylock, she says her house is “a kind of hell”. Everyone in Venice, from the Duke (the highest man in the land) to the lowest children in the street dislike Shylock.

As the play progresses the audience is led more and more to believe that Shylock is not a nice person, he is constantly scheming against Antonio until finally he is given a chance to take his revenge, Antonio is lured into a false sense of security by Shylock. Shylock pretends he wants to be Antonio’s friend. He jokingly says that his bond for the 3 thousand ducats will be a pound of Antonio’s flesh. In good humor, Antonio agrees to Shylock’s term’s believing he is only joking. Thus Shylock’s plot is launched.

Shylock can’t wait to “feed fat the ancient grudge” he bears Antonio. Shylock treats his servant Lancelot and his daughter Jessica very badly, for instance he calls Jessica as he would a slave, yelling ” What Jessica? – Why Jessica I say”. Poor Jessica cannot help wondering what a ” heinous sin is it in me is it to be ashamed to be my fathers child? “. So unhappy is she that she plans to leave her father, marry Lorenzo and convert to Christianity. Converting to Christianity must be the last resort for Jessica, because she is a Jew, and Jews are very devout about their religion.

When Jessica runs away, taking some of her father’s money and jewels, Shylock is very distressed… about his money. He runs through the streets of Venice shouting: “O my Ducats… Justice! Find the girl! ” Obviously he has no compassion, even for his daughter. The audience by this point has completely solid views about Shylock being a mean, untrustworthy and vengeful character. Layer in the play we see Shylock is reveling in his power over a Christian; he is overjoyed when he hears the impending news that the last of Antonio’s ships has been lost and that Antonio is unable to pay his bond.

Shylock demands that Antonio is arrested and taken to trial. Cold heatedly, Shylock refuses to listen to Antonio’s pleas for mercy. Even when he offers to pay 3 times as much as the bond is worth, Shylock still says, ” I have sworn an oath that I shall have my bond”. Portia (disguised as a lawyer) makes a stirring speech to save Antonio’s life. Shylock blatantly ignores this, showing he has absolutely no compassion whatsoever. Even before the court goes into session Shylock is “whetting thou knife so earnestly”.

Shylock won’t even let Antonio have a doctor to stop the bleeding. At the end of the play the audience will have quite secure idea exactly what Shylock is like. He is not a pleasant character; he is nasty to almost everyone he meets and thinks almost single-mindedly about his ‘revenge’ on Antonio. Although Shylock can be bad at times that’s not the only side to his personality. When the audience first meets Shylock they are also introduced to the anti-Semitism that follows him everywhere he goes.

Indeed, he is making a pleasant comment about Antonio when he says: “Antonio is a good man”. Immediately responding to this comment, Bassanio is enraged that Shylock, a Jew who has absolutely no right to dare to offer an opinion upon Antonio appears to be doing just that. This shows that the people of Venice, and by implication, the late 16th century audience, believed that just because Shylock is a Jew he has no right to any opinion whatsoever. Shylock is living in a fascist society, where everyone is against him.

Shylock is simply a victim of his religion. Shylock is a moneylender; the 16th century audience would have despised him for this, too, particularly as he make a profit from lending money to people in need. Antonio is destroying his livelihood by “lending out money gratis… “. As well as destroying Shylock’s business Antonio has gone a step further by publicly humiliating him by “spit(ing) upon my Jewish gabardine “and calling shylock ” misbeliever, cutthroat dog… etc”. Even worse, Antonio is not sorry and is ” like to spit on thee again”.

The audience sees Antonio has no need to insult and humiliate Shylock in public, the only reason he does this is because he is higher ranking in society than Shylock. The 20th century audience sees that Antonio has no need to insult and humiliate shylock in public, and feels some sympathy at this point for him. The situation is made worse by the fact that Antonio is a well-respected man in Venice, so others take their lead from him and also treat shylock badly. An excellent example of this is Salario and Solorino, Antonio’s friends. They insult him just because Antonio has insulted him.

For instance, they mock him when he is distressed about Jessica’s elopement, cruelly jeering him saying “why, all the boys in Venice crying his stones, his daughter and his ducats”. This attitude towards shylock is Probably shared by the 16th century audience but the 20th century audience can see that Antonio’s attitude to shylock and that of his followers is suspiciously alike. Perhaps they mock shylock following Antonio’s lead? The young boys in the street who tease shylock are far too young to formulate their own ideas about him to justify their hate.

Their attitude towards him probably comes from watching their betters (like Antonio and his friends) taunt and jeer Shylock, not because shylock is an evil man. Because of the feelings of sympathy which are developing for shylock, we begin to wonder if Lancelot, his servant is truly representing the facts when he complains of shylocks treatment of him. He is perhaps not as badly off as we first thought. We discover that the only reason he is leaving Shylock’s service is that he believes he will become “a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer”.

Previously the audience heard Lancelot complaining about the lack of food he had suffered from Shylock’s house, and how Shylock worked him to the bone. Shylock later says, “the Patch (Lancelot) is kindly enough” but also says he is fat and lazy. This gives us the impression that perhaps Lancelot is being less truthful in his representation of shylock, and may well be motivated, like so many others in Venice, by anti-Semitism rather than hardship. Certainly this suspicion is borne out by his conversation with Jessica, shylocks daughter.

Lancelot is fond of Jessica, yet he still describes her in anti-Semitic language as a “beautiful pagan”. He believes she will rot in hell if she does not become a Christian. At this point of the play we are very aware that shylock’s religion is a great barrier between him and the rest of Venetian society and begin to appreciate how difficult life must be for him. Another point that brings sympathy from the 20th century audience and amusement from the 16th century audience is Jessica’s (shylocks daughter) treatment of Shylock. Her cruelty hits shylock very hard because Shylock trusts Jessica.

He loves her so much that he finds it almost unthinkable that she could betray him. Evidence of this trust is shown when shylock locks up his house and meekly hands over his keys to Jessica, fully unaware of her plans to betray him. He also seeks to protect Jessica from what he sees as Christian corruption in the form of a Christian masque. When Jessica runs away and betrays shylock he is absolutely distraught. Not only does Jessica run away from him but she also steals 3 bags of ducats from him and a ring which was given to him by someone called Leah (the ring means a lot to him). nd when shylock finds out that Jessica has traded this ring for a monkey he states sadly ” I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys”. In the 16th century daughters were their fathers possession, they definitely would not run away and marry without their permission, this would have a huge impact upon shylock, bringing a feeling of humiliation and loss of his most important possessions, his daughter and his ring.

All these things weigh down heavily upon shylock and have a three fold effect on him. Usually a very private man, Shylock is so dazed and confused that he wanders the streets of Venice crying “my daughter… ind the girl! “. Even Salario and Solorino say they have never heard “a passion so confused”. Shylock’s public show of his feelings is very out of character for him. This would have great impact upon the 20th century audience bringing in a lot of sympathy for shylock. However, it would have the opposite effect upon the 16th century audience bringing them amusement. The final scene, the courtroom scene finds shylock in a state of crazed happiness at having finally being able to challenge Antonio in a fair court case, ironically this scene destroys shylock.

The audience are surprised to find Portia building up a strong case in shylocks favor and promises ” a pound of that same merchants flesh is thyne… you must cut it from his breast”. This may well be the first time anyone has publicly supported shylock. In front of the court Shylock is reluctant to profess his hatred of Antonio which would aid his case in court sympathy immensely, perhaps this is because he is clinging on to the last shreds of pride he has left, also he is a very private man.

The Duke (the highest man in the land) then has the nerve to ask Shylock to waive the loan and even not to ask any money of Antonio. He would probably not ask a Christian to do such a thing. Just as shylock is starting to trust Portia she turns the tables on him cruelly, the reason she led him to believe she was sympathetic for him was so she could effectively make him confess to wanting to kill Antonio, therefore giving the judge reason to prosecute shylock.

Even the laws of Venice are loaded against shylock, he is considered an alien in Venice, and if an alien conspires to kill a Venetian he stands to loose all his goods and his life as the judge says ” the other half (of shylocks goods) comes to the privy coffer of the state”. Poor shylock is now a broken man and to add to his humiliation and sadness Antonio smugly gives his half of Shylocks goods back to him. Sadly he asks “leave from here”. In conclusion, I believe that shylock is both victim and villain. He is living in a society that is strongly opposed to him just because he is a Jew.

However he can be mean and nice, villainous as we see from his behavior in court. If shylock truly was a villain, and to tell the truth he can be quite evil, it would be solely because he has been so abused it has made him bitter. I believe that Shakespeare persecuted shylock so much to show a sort of satire of society in the 16th century, perhaps he was trying to influence public opinions or perhaps shylock is just what he seems, whatever the case I think shylock is one of the most controversial characters Shakespeare has ever portrayed.

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