‘The Merchant of Venice’ is also a play which contains several linked stories. It is full of contrasting characters. There are high, witty characters that are aristocratic such as Bassanio and low comic characters such as Lorenzo and Gobbo. It has an enchanted princess in Belmont who is Portia and a bond plot set in Venice’s busy, financial world. It contains a trial, an elopement, a trick involving rings and women disguised as men. Into the middle of this light, romantic comedy, Shakespeare has planted a tragic villain. Shylock is unique in Shakespeare’s comedies. He is a figure of fun, and a sad, isolated human being.
We first meet Shylock at the end of Act I. From the start, we see that only money matters to him. He is very good at his business, which is lending money to people, then charging very high interest on it. He knows all about Antonio’s financial affairs. He also realises that all of Antonio’s wealth is out at sea, and is quite likely to be lost. All of the research he has done on Antonio gives the impression that he has his plans well organised. Shylock reveals in his first long soliloquy, his deep and venomous hatred for Antonio. We learn that he has been waiting for a long time to gain his revenge for when Antonio had previously spat on him because Shylock was a Jew. At this point, the audience are making their minds up about Shylock, and from his first entrance, many of the people in the audience have already made their decisions.
Shylock now pretends that he wants to be friends with Antonio and to let bygones be bygones. Instead of charging interest on his loan to Antonio as he usually does, Shylock suggests as a “merry jest” that if the loan is not paid on the day named, then he may have a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio readily agrees to this because he is a very trusting person and is certain that his ships will return safely home.
One of Shylock’s most obvious faults is his love of money over people. He is obsessed with money, He has no moral standards and he judges people by their financial status, so he describes Antonio as a “good man”, he doesn’t mean Antonio is morally good, he means that Antonio is “well off”. More evidence about this is when Shylock reacts to Jessica’s elopement and theft is that avarice squashes all fatherly feelings. He only wants to see his daughter “dead at his feet “with “the ducats in her coffin”. This confirms that he only cares for gold, ducats and precious stones.
Shylock is a miser and hates rejoicing, rather like Scrooge, but Shylock is worse because he has no humour.
Portia and Antonio are the most generous people in the play. Shylock is a contrast to them because he is not even willing to share his fortune with his own daughter, Jessica. For both Portia and Antonio, money is to be used, not hoarded and used for friendship. They use money to help their friends; they want no extra payment for it. “He who is well paid that is well satisfied”. Shylock on the other hand, would never refuse payment.
Against all this very real generosity, a Christian sense of charity towards others is set the cold and calculating character of Shylock. Shylock does lend money, but not out of love, he does it for profit. Furthermore, he uses money for revenge as an instrument of his vindictiveness. He agrees to the loan with Antonio and suggests the “merry bond” in order to catch Antonio on the hip and feed fat in his ancient grudge. Shylock’s hatred of Antonio “I hate him for he is a Christian”is also based on greed. Antonio has been lending money free of charge, so the other money lenders, like Shylock have lost business because of Antonio.
This is how and why Shylock sees an opportunity to get his own back. Viciousness and greed as shown by Shylock are contrasted with the generosity and kindness of Antonio. Antonio has another business with his ships collecting precious things like silk. This is his way of life and the only way that he can make money. Antonio has taken Shylock’s living away from him, so Shylock has a good reason to hate him. The law didn’t allow Shylock to do anything else but money lend, because this is ‘what the Jews did’. So from the start, Shylock is presented in an unfavourable light.
Shylock is often likened to the Devil and there are several references to this.
1) “The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose” quoted by Antonio
2) “Certainly the Jew is the very Devil incarnation” quoted by Launcelot, a servant.
3) “Our house is hell” quoted by Jessica.
4) “….lest the Devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew” quoted by Solario who was speaking to Solerio.
It was widely believed in Elizabethan times that Jews were in league with the devil. Shylock often referred to animals, especially pigs which are assumed to have a connection with the devil. There was the detest belief that Jews ate human flesh. Shylock says that Antonio’s pound of flesh will “feed my revenge”, giving the impression that this is why Shylock would like a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shakespeare mentions the pound of flesh in the story because people in those days did believe that Jews ate flesh, so this would guarantee the audience being frightened of what Shylock could or would do with Antonio’s pound of flesh.
Shylock’s love of money destroys any human feeling which he may have once had. More over, it is only when he loses his money that he begins to know what suffering is. “I never felt it till now”.
Shylock can be contrasted with Portia, Bassanio and Antonio. His first entrance puts a complete stop to the colourful talk of the first scene. He is a killjoy and his language is harsh and cold.
Shylock worries that his “Sober house” will be “poisoned” by the noise of the celebrations outside. He despises all festivals, again like Scrooge and has no sense of enjoyment at all. This shows that it is very ominous when he suggests a merry bond with Antonio, as he doesn’t do jokes. The audience is made well aware that it is dangerous hypocrisy. The audience have also seen Shylock’s very real hate for Antonio “How like a fawning publican he looks”. Shylock pretends to be kind, which is when he is at his most dangerous, the audience know this.
In the past Shylock has ruined the other borrowers by charging outrageously high interest. He hates Antonio all the more because he has helped such people.
The relation Shylock has with his daughter is very un-feeling and there is no sign of affection shown towards her before she departs. “My girl”, he calls her as if she were a servant. He orders Jessica to “Lock my house…lock up my doors…do as I bid you”. In his famous speech in Act III, scene 1, lines 43-59 we expect to see something human in his character. He points out that a Jew is just as much a human being as the next man, this makes the audience feel a little sorry for Shylock because of the grief that he has put up with for the majority of his lifetime. But even Shylock says that he has none of the feelings of kindness, generosity and friendship. He says he “Hath eyes, hands, organs and blood”, but he never once mentions his heart. Perhaps it has been hardened by the continuous racial abuse he has suffered.
Shylock has undeniable cause for complaint. “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause, but since I am a dog, beware of my fangs”. He says this to Antonio. It is a very strong message, almost as if he is admitting to being the bitter and twisted man that everybody thinks he is. But it isn’t only Antonio who has taunted the Jew. Gratiano also exhibits a vicious side; this is particularly seen during the trial towards Shylock. He reminds us of Shylock’s own words. Gratiano is very like Shylock as he has no “quality of mercy” and thoroughly enjoys the final judgement. His praise of Portia echoes Shylock. “O learned judge-mark Jew-a learned judge”.
“A second Daniel, a Daniel Jew. Now infidel I have you on the hip”. This echoes Shylock’s words about Antonio and shows the disturbing similarity between Gratiano and Shylock, between a Christian and a Jew. If Shakespeare has any message for us regarding Shylock, it must be that evil treatment breed’s evil behaviour and before self righteously condemn others, we should examine ourselves first. As always, with Shakespeare, we leave the theatre well entertained, but with lingering thoughts.
Shylock is upset when he discovers Jessica has left him but this quickly disappears because of the sheer anger he feels when he finds out that she has taken his fortune. His greed takes over any fatherly feelings which he may have had.
The question of whether Shakespeare intended Shylock to be a victim or a villain has long been a subject of debate; evidence indicates that he is a bloodthirsty villain whenever money is involved. But possibly, he has a bit of both in his very complex character.
I think that Shylock is portrayed as both a victim and a villain in the play, and I also think that Shakespeare did this deliberately in order to give people their own opinion, but I am unsure as to which I think he is. Although Shylock is very greedy and thinks of nothing but money, he hasn’t known any better throughout his whole life. On the other hand, Shylock does not make any attempt to love or show any human emotions to anybody, not even Jessica, his own daughter.
In conclusion, I would say that Shylock is both a victim and a villain , heendured a lot of hard times and painful events. Discrimination was always openly shown towards him, especially from Antonio which is the reason he wanted revenge. Anyone subjected to the same treatment as he was is certain to become bitter and angry. He was forced into becoming what he is through the injuries and wickedness inflicted upon his own emotions. Although it may not be apparent, through this study of Shylock, I have become aware that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ conveys a powerful message. The way we treat others may conjure up emotions of which we are unaware. We must not forget that by the closing stages of the play Shylock had nothing.