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Shylock: A Villain Or A Victim?

2617 words - 11 pages

Shylock: a ‘villain’ or a ‘victim’? How does Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice incline you to one view or another?

William Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant Of Venice’ explores how a society so dependent upon money and power can be divided so strongly by religion and women. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience may well have seen Shylock as the ‘fierce villain’ or the ‘bloody minded monster’ (1). Today, the presentation of Shylock is more complex, with both Henry Goodman and Al Pacino showing the human and injured side to the character. Liking to find his ingredients in existing stories of his time, such as The Jew of Malta, and inventing only when he had to, Shakespeare ...view middle of the document...

3.156). Here we see Shylock addressing his spiritual father, asking him how profitable his agreement with Antonio will be. Whilst the speech is uncomfortably literal, it gives us an insight into Shylock’s more puritan life, in which he uses the Old Testament to guide him, compared to the more lavish and lustful lives of the Christians, Antonio and Bassanio. Shylock also manipulates scripture for his own benefit, and is accused of doing so by the Christians. In his speech (1.3.71), Shylock delivers the story of Laban’s Sheep and uses scripture to depict money lending as blessed, making us see Shylock as a victim here who has to defend himself for being a usurer, when in fact it was one of the few jobs he could do in society as Christians were forbidden to do so under Papal decree.

Shylock is continuously attacked throughout the play for being a Jew by the Christian characters, much like Jews were actually treated in reality. They were spat on as they walked through streets and had to wear a yellow scarf when outside their ghettoes. Shakespeare accurately represents these strong anti-Semitic feelings through characters such as Gratiano, when he refers to Shylock as an ‘inexecrable dog’ (4.1.128). Gratiano speaks of Pythagoras’ idea that the souls of animals transmigrate to those of humans in his speech (4.1.128). He says how he imagines the soul of a wolf fusing itself with Shylock inside of his ‘unhallow’d dam’ to make him ‘ravenous’ and ‘starved’. This theory projects the pure hatred society had for Jews through Gratiano and Shakespeare uses violent language such as ‘bloody’ and ‘slaughter’ to show this as well. Shakespeare also uses characters such Antonio, Salanio and Salarino to demonstrate this. Antonio refers to Shylock as having a ‘Jewish heart’, whilst Salanio refers to Shylock being the devil, ‘Let me say ‘amen’ betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer,/for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. (3.1.19). Shakespeare’s stereotypical and dark representations of Shylock cleverly manipulate his Elizabethan audience into taking the side of Antonio and the Christians and undoubtedly making them believe Shylock is a villain, additionally aided by the views of his time. As powerful as Shakespeare’s writing was, in today’s society we are not as quick to judge and are not as easily persuaded by his genius.

The villainy and cruelty of Shylock is without doubt in the play, but there are moments when we witness his humanity and vulnerability. In Shylock’s arguably most moving speech, which is written in prose and has a simple lexical field, we see his religious difference and plight. In this speech (3.1.47), Shylock is shown as more human and less of a caricature, and Shakespeare rises above the prejudice of his time through Shylock’s language: ‘Hath not a Jew hands? ‘If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us, do we not laugh?’ Shakespeare directly compares Christians and Jews and highlights the fact that in reality, they are not at...

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