Elizabethan times had a practised dislike and disrespect towards the Jews, which was based on a misunderstanding of the Christian story. It was thought that Jews killed Christ and were therefore unforgivable. They were also money lenders which was going against the law of the Bible. Whilst Christians were happy to borrow money from Jews, they were quick to reject repayment so this made the Jews a target for dislike. Their own religion and the way it was practised was not understood, and this also led to people being suspicious of Jews.
Their diet was seen as strange, they did not eat pork for example which was to be found in the basic diet of the ordinary non Jewish person. Any differences that people in general saw were regarded as something to fear or a cause for suspicion. As a consequence of these facts any Jewish group was isolated. They could not mix or intermarry with non Jews therefore they never could be seen as integrating with their host country, and so the differences were tolerated but visible.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Jew Shylock was based not on what he saw daily because Jews had been overtaxed and banished from England but from hearsay and old ideas of what Jews were. Shakespeare’s Shylock is that of a stereotypical Jewish money-lender. Shylock is presented as a well educated widower, with one daughter. He appears in only five scenes in the play yet he is the one character everyone remembers. Throughout the play Shylock becomes more and more isolated. He is isolated by his religion and by his looks and fashion.
Our attitudes towards him change throughout the play, we start by feeling pity for him as he is treated unfairly, but by the end of the play because, despite being given the chance to be merciful, he enjoys his power and spiteful revenge as a result the audience lost any pity. Shylock is an inflexible religious man whose behaviour and attitudes are influenced by the environment in which he lives. He is seen as an “alien” by the Christians of Venice. He is abused throughout the play and we sympathise with him.
He is deserted and robbed by his only daughter and we can understand his grief for the family name is carried by the female line of the family. He is also a shrewd, tyrannical, cunning business man. He has an obvious love of money, which results in the devastating defeat of himself, which we can empathise with to a point. He has a powerful learned hatred for Christians in general. He is very much alone in this Christian ruled society, his wife is dead and his daughter, Jessica deserts him and her religion and becomes a Christian.
His only friend is Tubal who is a Jew but not a father; this may be why Tubal has a different perspective on life to Shylock. Shylock first appears in act 1 scene 3. From the beginning of this scene Shylock’s motives seem to be bloodthirsty and vengeful. He says “If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”. In Venice, Bassanio is attempting to secure three thousand ducats from Shylock. Bassanio desperately needs the three thousand ducats to equip himself to go to Belmont as a suitor for Portia. Shylock hates Antonio and has little love for Bassanio.
How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian” Antonio tells Shylock to make the terms of the loan those he would give any enemy. As they are discussing the loan Antonio clearly shows he hates Shylock and refers to him to a “devil”. Shylock’s hatred for Antonio is matched by Antonio’s hatred for Shylock in this scene, which justifies why Shylock makes a bond. Shylock points out that Antonio has often abused him in the streets of Venice but now wants to borrow money. Antonio replies that he will very probably abuse him again.
Shylock proposes, “as a merry sport”, that he won’t charge interest on the loan, which shows he is prepared to go without financial gain from his loan to Antonio in the hope that he may gain more of a dreadful outcome, the death of Antonio. Shylocks feigning friendship towards Antonio agrees to lend the money but at Antonio’s request as to an enemy. However there is a bond; if Bassanio does not repay the debt within the specified three months, Shylock who despises Antonio can by agreement, cut from him a pound of flesh. Antonio is not worried, and confidently says “My ships come home a month before the day”
Bassanio is uneasy about the arrangement because he is more aware of Shylock’s motives, but Antonio is untroubled and sees it as a sporting kindness on the part of Shylock, not realising that Shylock intends him harm. Shylock and Antonio stand as representatives of their different cultures and religions throughout the play and this would have been noticed in the Elizabethan ages. At the beginning of Act 2 Scene 2 Gobbo Shylock’s servant, is debating with himself whether to leave the service of Shylock or to stay with him. He says he is torn between two devils, the devil himself and Shylock who is the very devil incarnation” Gobbo provides the humour in the play.
He is employed by Shylock but still denies him respect and is given a higher status than him because of his religion. Elizabethan audiences would have accepted his higher status. Gobbo decides to leave Shylock’s employment and seek service with Bassanio. Act 2 Scene 2 we are aware of Jessica’s total rejection of her father, her faith and her family roots. She has even exchanged her dead mother’s ring for a monkey which is outrageously cruel. Tubal Shylock’s Jewish friend goes searching for Jessica but failed to find her.
He says that he often heard reports of her and her extravagant spending of Shylock’s money, this deeply saddens Shylock, and he feels hurt, humiliated and betrayed by his own daughter, his own flesh and blood. Shylocks strict regime was built of good intentions, but from Jessica’s point of view his rules were too restrictive and patronising and lacking in understanding of her needs. We have mixed opinions about Shylock and his daughter Jessica. There are times when I feel sorry for Shylock, times when I am horrified by his bloodthirsty desire for revenge.
I would my daughter were dead at my foot, ad the jewels in her ear: would she were hears’d at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin. ” Equally there are times when I sympathise with Jessica’s tedious life and times when I am shocked by the way she treats her farther. Shylock is totally without humour and rarely shows affection. He has brought Jessica up on his own, this may be why he is so overprotective, he has never had another female in the house to understand Jessica since is wife died. Shylock values his home. He remembers his wife, and the ring she gave him with some tenderness.
In his own way, no doubt, he loves his daughter. He bullies her and gives her little freedom but with good reason. He tells her to close the windows and doors of his house if she hears the sound of festivity. He obviously trusts his daughter, she keeps his keys, and she is his trusted housekeeper. When he leaves the safety of his own home during the Christian festival she steals his money and jewels and runs away with her fiance, who is a Christian which shows she is cunning, deceiving, heartless and selfish. “If thou keep promise I shall end this strife, become a Christian and thy loving wife. ”
This action would have been welcomed by Christians in the Elizabethan period because it would have been seen as she wanted to become one of them and not be an “alien”. Act 3 Scene 1 In an impassioned speech Shylock says that Jews and Christians have the same physical characteristics, and the same feelings. As the Christians take revenge when they are hurt, so shall he, as a Jew take revenge? “The villainy you teach me I will execute” and I think perhaps this is the root of Shylocks anger. Even though he is a Jew he has been taught by Christians to take revenge when given the opportunity, so he will.
Once again Shylock is referred to as a devil. As he approaches, Solanio says “Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. ” In this scene we are aware of the misery of all the characters involved. Antonio’s ships are missing and he faces not only ruin, but also the prospect of losing his life to Shylock. Solanio and Salerio reinforce the misery with their cruel taunting of Shylock at the beginning of this scene and the loss of his daughter which is depressing in its own way.
Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. ” This very gloomy scene is written entirely in prose which seems to suit its dismal and unhappy content. The court room scene shows us how deep Shylocks need for revenge is. He has his wish that of the law agreeing he his right. The fact that Shylock is using the Christian law is an additional benefit for him and would not be lost in the Elizabethan audience. Justice and revenge are I think two sides of the same coin for Shylock he has to have a little of both.
We can see the balance of justice verses injustice, revenge verses forgiveness all bound up in the image of the scales of justice because the goddess who holds the scales is blind. The fore fronted meat scales are to focus everyone’s eyes on the agreed bond “a pound of flesh”. Portia is able to show Shylock at his most unforgiving, she gives him many opportunities to forgive or accept another form of increased repayment and in doing so is leading the audience away from any pity or sympathy they may have had for this man. Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy is very famous.
She shows here that she is intelligent and sensitive. It also balances the Duke’s earlier plea for mercy. The tables which appeared to have been turned towards Shylock are now swiftly turned against him using the very weapon “the law” that he himself thought he was safe from. Portia moves quickly from pursuing Shylock to arranging an elaborate practical joke. Clearly the fate of Shylock does not trouble her conscience in the slightest. As a modern audience I think Shylock is quite entitled to take “a pound of flesh”. He insists that he is acting lawfully but fails to see that the law is intended to be just.
The same Christians that think Shylock is unjust keep slaves. The law allows this and so they think it is acceptable. In my view the laws regarding an “alien” plotting murder of a citizen apply to Shylock because he is Jewish. A Christian would not receive such harsh treatment. Shylock’s revenge results in his total humiliation and loss of riches as he has to give half of his riches to his daughter, Jessica and her fiance Lorenzo, and also has to become a follower of the Christian faith. I don’t know what is worse, having to give up his religion or be hung. In Shylock’s eyes I think he would rather die than become a Christian.
Shakespeare wrote plays to make money, and the only way to make money was to please the audience so it was highly un-likely that Shylock could have bettered a Christian, so his defeat had to be more than the loss of his bond; it was in a way a warning at any non Christian who attempted to seek revenge on a Christian. This play can be read as anti-Semitic. Shylock is a pretty rotten character and the fact that he is Jewish is difficult to overlook. However, I think it is important to mention that the “heroes” of this play do not necessarily have to be interpreted as heroes.
They are by no means perfect and there are many subtle and some not-so-subtle instances within the text in which their biases against anyone unlike them is illustrated. If one reads the play this way, then Shylock becomes more of a tragic figure rather than an absolutely heartless villain, which would have been the Elizabethan audience’s judgment. From a modern audience’s point of view Shylock was taught by his superiors and the environment in which he lived which make us more sympathetic and understanding towards him.