Shylock In The Merchant Of Venice
As one of the most complex characters in English literature, Shylock plays a central role in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare. He should not be thought of as simple and on dimensional, for it is Shylock’s virtues and flaws that highlight the thought-provoking elements of the play. The intricate details of Shylock’s unique character are skilfully woven together to create a villain that is interesting and captivates the audience.
Shylock is introduced in Act one Scene three as a Jewish moneylender. Antonio, a wealthy Christian merchant, asks him for three thousand ducats. This is a pivotal point in the play as we learn about the two men’s past. In an aside speech, Shylock informs us that he hates Antonio, ’for he is Christian’ and he lends out money free of interest. This makes Shylock, who collects interest on the money he lends out, look greedy. Immediately modern audiences let their sympathy lie with Antonio, for Shylock has presented his prejudice nature. However, later in the scene we learn that Antonio has spat upon Shylock’s Jewish gaberdine. It is also in this scene we encounter Shylock being true to his faith. He refuses to dine with Bassanio and Antonio because this would offend his religious beliefs.
The enthralling plot comes fully to life in this scene because the conditions of the bond are set. Shylock, plotting his revenge on Antonio makes an inhumane suggestion to him, ‘an equal pound of your fair flesh to cut off and taken from what part of your body pleaseth me’ if Antonio does not pay back the money in three months. Antonio displaying his confident nature agrees, proclaiming, ‘My ships come home a month before the day.’
Shylock is so driven by hatred he makes the bond to kill his enemy, Antonio. Certain events reinforce his need for revenge. His servant Lancealot leaves his service to work for Bassanio because he finds the Jew mean and unpleasant. It was Lancealot’s practical jokes that have kept Shylock’s daughter, Jessica from leaving his house. She refers to her fathers house as, ‘hell’. When Lancealot leaves, Jessica makes plans to elope with Lorenzo, Antonio’s Christian friend. This only deepens Shylock’s resentment of Antonio. The audience loathe Shylock for treating his daughter as he did, but may feel sorry for him as Jessica stole money and precious goods from her father.
Shylock is portrayed as a victim when Solanio and Salerio mock his loss over his deserted daughter. This is the view presented throughout the play, as we hardly see Shylock interacting with his own people. Apart from two brief episodes with Tubal, we are always given the Christians view of him. They refer to him as the, ‘dog Jew’ and compare him to the devil. Antonio implies Shylock will to anything to get what he wants, ‘the devil will cite scripture for his purpose.’ This evokes the central theme of prejudice in the play.
In his present state of mind, a bitter Shylock is resentful of all Christians. This wills him to be ruthless and barbaric in his treatment of Antonio, when the time comes, ‘I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it’ As an audience we can not help but feel it is not all Shylock’s fault. After years of being belittled and humiliated by Antonio, Shylock’s hatred is understandable. He was never shown any kindness in the play so his brutal need for revenge is the only way he knows how to deal with the betrayals he has faced.
His deeply human side with high moral values is portrayed in his ‘To bait withal…’ speech. It expresses, in vivid terms, the conviction that all human beings share the same physical makeup , the same emotions and the same motives for good and evil. It also highlights a emotion that can be regarded as being uniquely human, the need for revenge. By having Shylock passionately deliver this forthright statement of human equality, Shakespeare arouses sympathy for him in the audience.
During the courtroom scene, Shylock has several chances to grant mercy to Antonio. If he were to do this, Shylock would have left the court a wealthy Jew. However, he stands on his bond, pronouncing, ‘I crave the law, the penalty and the forfeit of my bond’. This evokes Shylock’s flaws of greed and cruelty. It causes the Duke to comment on him as, ‘A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.’ This is the consistent Christian view of Shylock, making it hard for the audience to empathise with his current situation.
Throughout Act Four Scene One, Shylock presses on ruthlessly with his attempt to kill Antonio. When Portia, dressed as Balthasar, begs him to show mercy with her ‘the quality of mercy is not strained…’ speech, Shylock does not back down. Instead he proudly demotes the Christians , saying they never display any mercy to their slaves. He never took an interest in denouncing such hypocrisy until he needed a excuse to draw attention away from his own wickedness. He is a strong willed character who is driven with enough hatred to kill his nemesis, Antonio. He certainly would have done so if it were not Portia’s intellect that saw a flaw in the bond.
Shylock receives harsh punishments in the courtroom scene. Portia insists on seizing his goods and land. He is humiliated further when he has to beg for mercy from the Duke and Antonio. ’He presently become a Christian’ was Antonio’s way of punishing him. This in modern audiences tends to shift sympathy back to Shylock, however in Elizabethan times it would have been perceived that Antonio was doing him a favour. Although we can acknowledge Shylock’s devastation at the hearing of his chastisement, it does not excuse his villainy.
‘I am content’ were the last words spoken by Shylock in the play before he fled from the courtroom. He does not feature in the happy ending of the play and in the final part of the courtroom scene he hardly speaks. This illustrates that the once hardened Jew is now a meek penniless Christian.
Shylock, without doubt, has more dramatic interest for the audience than any other character in the play. Whenever he is present, conflict is sharp and emotions are heightened. Shylock is conveyed effectively as a highly intelligent man whose flaws often get the better of him. He is a typical villain, whose wicked character stands as an obstacle to happiness and a threat to social harmony. Shylock’s intricate character is a tribute to Shakespeare’s genius in dealing with society’s outcasts.