It is a sad fact that people are scared of anything that seems ‘abnormal’, anything that they can’t or refuse to comprehend. A majority of people mistrusted different skin colour, language or religions in Elizabethan times. The Jews in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ are no exception. They are also hated, despised and persecuted. For this reason, you have to ask the question, is Shakespeare anti-Semitic? Or does he simply pity Shylock? Why, if he is anti-Semitic, did he make Shylock such a strong character? Why did he allow us to see the human side of Shylock?
I intend to examine whether it was Shakespeare’s intention to use this stereotype in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ or if he was trying to show the softer side of Shylock, and allow him to be seen as a human being. Shakespeare, when ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written, was competing with another playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and his play, ‘The Jew of Malta’. In this play the Jew, Barabas, is treated as totally evil, a thoroughly villainous ogre. In comparison, Shylock has a few redeeming qualities and is allowed to be seen as humane.
The dramatic origins of the stereotype Jew would have been influenced by Marlowe’s play and also from the historical and social context. People saw Jews as extortionists, taking money from Christians as the only available profession was as a moneylender. This is why Shylock’s character is first introduced as archetypal money obsessed Jew. Act One, Scene Three begins midway through a conversation between Shylock and Bassanio, concerning the bond. Shylock seems to be enjoying manipulating Bassanio, putting him on the spot. “For three months – well. ” The deliberate repetition makes Bassanio uncomfortable.
This make the character seem more villain than victim, he enjoys manipulating his enemy. As Shylocks first words were about money, the audience’s first impression of him is money obsessed. Shylock’s stereotypical Jewishness is shown in Act Two, Scene Five. Money is very important to Shylock, as it may be his only source of power over the Christians. “I did dream of moneybags tonight. ” This creates tension, as traditionally whatever you dream, the opposite will happen. So this dream indicates his future peripeteia, he will lose his money to Jessica and Lorenzo.
This could show his obsession and constant thoughts of money. Alternatively, money may be his only advantage over the Christians and his concern over it shows his vulnerability and insecurity. Shylock also has a distinct hatred of music ” vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife” this negative description of music from Shylock shows him to be an archetypal grumpy old man which supports Antonio and Bassanio’s opinion of him. “Stop my houses ears, I mean my casements: let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house. ” This use of personification shows Shylock’s wish to be apart from any joy in the world.
The audience at this point are aware of Jessica’s secret plans and Shylock’s trusting nature leaving his keys with Jessica is seen as foolish and nai?? ve. Shylock is very trusting in his daughter. “Lock up my doors. ” This turns back on him, as Jessica steals his riches and elopes. This scene suggests he is a stereotypical Jew, a very self centred man and a bad father. There is dramatic tension because the audience are aware of Jessica’s plans and Shylock is not. The audience are worried that Shylock will not go to this feast and therefore Jessica cannot elope.
We do not feel sympathy for Shylock, in fact we are complicit in his defrauding. We feel Jessica is justified in running away because of the way she is treated by her father, she has no freedom and clearly feels embarrassed to be his daughter. Shylock is seen to use dramatic behaviour associated with evil characters. This is shown through his use of an aside or soliloquy when he comments, “I hate him for he is a Christian” This suggests his vindictive nature and two-faced attitude towards Antonio, showing him to be just as evil to them as they are to him.
By using an aside, he confides his secret plotting to the audience, confirming his dramatic status as a villain. Antonio calls Shylock “a villain with a smiling cheek. ” This means he is a villainous character, covering his evil side, being two faced. This quotation makes the audience understand the complexity of his emotion, his outward kindness but contrast of deep evil. Shakespeare continues to emphasise this, following the simile with a metaphor “A goodly apple rotten at the heart. ” Shylock is also described as a devil. “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose. This devil description is very contradictory of his pure natured religion. So which is he? Surely he could not be so religious and be so evil. Is his Judaism all just an act? The image of a pound of human flesh is not a very clean, godly image and seems evil and animalistic. Therefore, Antonio’s comments reinforce the villainous side of Shylock.
Shylock’s response to Bassanio’s seemingly kind offer of eating with him is immediate and snappy. It is something he is strongly against. He describes pork as the “habitation which your prophet Nazarite conjures the devil into. This shows Shylock to be a very learned man in the ways of religion; it is a significant part of his life. The way he immediately answers in such a dramatic way shows his feelings for his religion. “But I will not eat with you drink with you” he uses epistrophe with he repetition of the words ‘with you’. Shylock is getting quite personal but doesn’t just state things he will not do. This shows he is not so narrow-minded, rather, his argumentativeness could show that he is witty and eloquent, he has probably has a good education, focused strongly around religion. He may just like to argue and have his opinion known.
The audience may be shocked by his sudden response but may understand the reason of his religion, which means he cannot eat with Christians, due to ritual food laws. However, Shylock contradicts himself and his previous insistence that he would not eat with Christians in the next scene in which he appears. So this shows his Jewish principles are not his first priority when it comes to his money. He may have only been invited so the Christians can mock him and it is clear that he will be an outsider, yet he goes so he can waste the Christians’ money, which they borrowed from him. I’ll go in hate, to feed upon the prodigal Christian. ” He is doing this to keep up his economy.
This emphasises to the audience his obsession for money. It also gives a clear indication of the vengeful side of his character, which develops fully later on in the play. Act Two, Scene Eight gives a biased view from the characters Solanio and Solario. We do not see Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s disappearance so they comment and use his distress for comedy. Solanio refers to Shylock as “The villain Jew” This proves Solanio’s opinions are all biased and it may sway the audience to think with them.
Solanio explains, “I have never heard a passion so confused” Shylock is passionate about so many things that they begin to contradict each other. Shylock is broken by his double loss. In his distress, he is mentally confused and is not thinking or speaking straight. His grief is overwhelming. The audience may sympathise because Shylock is being mocked and also because of the focus of his existence, his money, is gone. “The Jew did utter in the streets: My daughter! O my Ducats! ” It seems he is weighing out his misfortune and the Ducats are more important to him that his daughter.
Shakespeare influences the audience’s attitudes about Shylock, and once again makes him seem like a money-hungry scoundrel who does not deserve our sympathy. However, I think he does allow us to see that Shylock is grieving the loss of his daughter too, but the emphasis is definitely on the loss of his money. His greed is more important than what is left of his family. The recent film interpretation shows Shylock to be almost completely innocent as it edits certain villainous lines and the pound of flesh bond is presented as not just a sick idea, but in a practical context.
Shylock has just bought a pound of meat and therefore he is not perceived as instantly bloodthirsty, as might be seen on stage. The animalistic image pound of flesh is an unclean image, going against Shylock’s religious principles. The bond takes on other purposes during the play than just a “merry sport” it becomes Shylock’s outlet of revenge onto Antonio and all Christians for the suffering they have put him through. “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. ” Shylock agrees that a pound of flesh may be worthless, but it will give him his much-wanted revenge.
As Antonio’s fortunes decline, we see a much more powerful Shylock who can be interpreted as quite selfish. However, I think it is important to state that this is not necessarily stereotypical behaviour of Shylock, but it evolves from his treatment by the Christians. In Act One, Scene Three, Shylock makes one of his long speeches about how badly the Christians have treated him. “You called me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus moneys? ” I think he has a right to question why he should do them a favour, when they would not do the same for him.
Shakespeare’s use of sarcastic tone shows the change in Shylock’s character. The Christians are shown to be disgusting, spitting on Shylock. They mistreat him because they judge him as the stereotypical Jew but later on in the play the audience begin to understand why he is hated. However, as the play progresses, we see that he may act bitterly to get his own back for being wronged previously. It is a vicious cycle, which is why Shylock is such an interesting character. The effect of having Shylock report the abuse rather than seeing it means it doesn’t quite outbalance the villainy.
In Radford’s film interpretation we see for our self the abuse and that is why we are swayed to feel more sympathetically towards Shylock. In Act Three, Scene One Shylock is once again shown as an “inexecrable dog” but also a victim of Salerino’s sneering and mocking. However, he is strong and defends himself passionately. “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed? ” Shylock is trying to persuade the Christians to understand that he is human and subject to the same pain as them. Shakespeare uses rhetorical questions here to involve listeners and force then to agree with Shylock.
There is also anaphora in the repetition of ‘if you’ and epistrophe in the repetition of ‘do we not’ This combination helps to highlight each point he is making and makes it seem more like a long list which stays in the audience’s head. “The villainy you teach me I will execute” Ironically all of the mocking and torment that people have given Shylock has taught him to seek revenge in the same way they do. I feel the ending undermines his quest for justice as he learns that revenge and justice are not the same thing. In the play there is only one mention of Leah.
Jessica has apparently swapped a turquoise ring, belonging to Leah, for a monkey. Shylock states “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” It is obviously precious to Shylock yet Jessica disregards this and so Shylock must be under great trauma, showing him to be very human and mistreated. Although the audience may be uncomfortable at his thirst for revenge, they can also sympathise with his loss and sense of betrayal. Alternatively, critics have pointed out that this is the only genuine grief Shylock shows to anything other than himself and it is for an inanimate object, not a person.
In Act Three, Scene Three we see further proof that Shylock is no longer willing to listen to reason, and is eager to retrieve his pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. He reveals his hatred of Christians because he will not have mercy upon Antonio and insists upon taking his bond. Shylock points out the way Antonio previously treated him and uses one of Antonio’s insults against him. “Thou call’dst me a dog before thou had’st a cause, but since I am a dog beware my fangs” Being called a dog was an insult to Shylock because in his religious tradition it is an unclean animal.
Shylock repeats the words “I’ll have my bond” five times, illustrating that his mind is made up and will not be swayed, especially not by the words of Christians. Act Four, Scene One is the key scene of the play, the court scene. At first Shylock is seen as a villain adamantly insisting on his bond. Prejudice is shown towards Shylock, even before he enters the room. The Duke calls Shylock an “inhuman wretch… incapable of pity” This shows that the Venetian establishment is definitely biased against Shylock.
It also prepares the audience for one of the dramatic twists, because Shylock refuses to pity Antonio (and so spare him) therefore no pity will be given to Shylock when he faces judgement. Shylock states to the Duke that “I give no reason, nor I will not, more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio. ” He gives no reason for wanting Antonio dead. This makes us forget Shylock’s suffering and once again we see him as an “inexecrable dog” because he makes no attempt here to logically explain his hatred. He is seen in court as irrational and hate filled, rather than one who has been badly treated and abused himself.
I think Shakespeare does this because it is important for the balance of the play. Shylock has to be seen as unreasonable so we see the judgement in the court as just. Shylock is unrelenting, he claims “I stand for justice” He believes that if the forfeit is not taken, it is unjust but he is also trying to prove that they can not get away with all of the wrong they have done to him. If the roles were reversed, and Shylock was being forced to give up a pound of flesh, would people be making as big of a fuss as they are for Antonio?
I think Shylock has become a victim of society’s cruel ways, yet Shylock is also cruel, the plot to kill Antonio being a prime example. This scene turns on peripetia, Shylock’s dramatic reversal in fortune, when it is announced that he had lost the battle for his bond. He is told he can only have his bond if he does not spill any blood. He asks The Duke to let him go “Give me my principle, and let me go” but this offer is refused again. There is now a case against Shylock as a non-Venetian citizen trying to take the life of a Venetian citizen’s life, and so half of his money goes to the intended victim, Antonio, and half goes to the state.
The Duke allows him to live but still wants to take his money as punishment “You take my life, when you do take the means whereby I live. ” Shylock is permitted to keep his money so long as it goes to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death. Possibly worst of all, he must convert to Christianity. This is a very lenient penalty, according to the Christians, compared to death. Shylock’s soul has been saved so it is a happy ending. Yet by this stage, Shylock is a broken man and leaves the court early as he claims he is not well.
As an Elizabethan stage production, this would be a point of humour as the tormented Shylock left the stage having experienced his just desserts for all his evil plotting. Modern audiences, however, would be sympathetic with his humiliation especially after historical events such as The Holocaust. They would also see that Shylock’s ‘ancient grudge’ with Christians derives from their physical and mental abuse inflicted upon him, which Shylock did nothing to deserve, the Christians were merely prejudiced against him very unfairly, yet, ultimately it is Shylock who suffers.
In conclusion, Shylock is a paradox. To fit the dramatic needs of the play he has to be a villain but Shakespeare created more than just a one-dimensional character. There is evidence for both sides of Shylocks character. The way Shakespeare makes Shylock such a vengeful character indicates he may have been prejudiced against Jews, but the way he gives Shylock a reason for his bloodthirstiness, indicates that at the very least he was more sympathetic towards the Jewish people than others at the time.