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Shakespeare’s Character of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Essay

William Shakespeare wrote his play ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ in approximately the year 1600. Shakespeare would have written this play to be performed at the Globe theatre in London.

In order to understand ‘The Merchant of Venice’ we must identify some of the features that Shakespeare uses. We must also remember that all characters in this play are Shakespeare’s creations to make his play both amusing and effective.

In the year 1290, all Jews had been banished from England. This meant that not many people would have known a Jewish person, but would have only heard stereotypical views of these people. In the year 1500 Jews began to return to England because they were fleeing from the Inquisition in Europe. English people in the year 1600 would also have a re-enforced hate of Jews, as in 1594, a Jewish Doctor Lopez, was executed for attempting to murder the Queen.

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Shakespeare chose to set the play in Venice because at the time, it was a great trading nation as it was at a convenient point between East and West. The Venetian Justice system was also seen to be very fair, and this proves to be useful for Shakespeare in the trial scene. In 1516, the ghetto was formed in Venice. This was a place outside the city walls where Jews were forced to go at night, and were locked in this place. Christian soldiers guarded the ghetto.

There is much evidence throughout the play that proves to us that Shylock is a monstrous human being. Before we analyse Shylock, though, we must think about other characters in the play, and any influence that these characters may have upon Shylock’s behaviour.

Shylock is a Jew, which means that he is restricted to certain business in Venice. One of the businesses that Shylock is allowed to take part in, however, is usury. Usury is money lending to make a profit. Shylock would be able to lend money to people and charge interest on their loans. Not only is this a profitable trade, but also it is fairly straightforward.

Antonio, however, does not like Shylock, and lends out money ‘gratis’ to spite him. The definition of the word ‘gratis’ is free of charge. As Antonio is a merchant, he would be very wealthy, so people would go to him before approaching Shylock. This meant Antonio would effectively take some of Shylock’s business from him. As well as this, Antonio is a Christian, which means he does not like Shylock because Jews are so frequently accused of theocide.

Jessica is Shylock’s daughter. Jessica is in love with a Christian man called Lorenzo. Shylock is very annoyed by this as he has raised his daughter a Jew, and her wanting to become a Christian really upsets Shylock, as he is a very religious man.

As ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is divided into four main sub-plots, we do not see Shylock in every scene. These four plots are:

> The bond between Shylock and Antonio.

> Shylock’s daughter Jessica.

> The caskets.

> The rings.

Although there are actually four main sub-plots, we only need to focus on the bond between Shylock and Antonio, and Shylock’s daughter Jessica. These two plots are essential to the judgement and observation of Shylock’s personal characteristics and attitude towards other characters in the play.

We first encounter Shylock at the start of Act 1 Scene 3. This is the scene where Shylock sets up the bond with Antonio. Bassanio and Shylock are present at the beginning of this scene, and Bassanio is asking Shylock if he will lend three thousand ducats (Venetian gold coins) to Antonio. Shylock seems excited by the fact that he may have to lend money to Antonio when Shylock says:

‘Antonio shall become bound, well.’

This means that should Antonio not pay the loan in the time he has been asked to, he will have to carry out the forfeit that he agreed to when he signed the bond with Shylock.

When Shylock sees Antonio approaching, he turns to Bassanio and says

‘I hate him for he is a Christian; but more for, that in low simplicity he lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice.’

Shylock is basically saying that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian, but even more so, he hates him because he lends out money for free, taking much of Shylock’s business from him. He is also saying that he thinks Antonio is a fool for not making profit on any loans that he might give.

Further through this scene, shylock begins to quote from the Torah (Jewish Bible) to argue a point with Antonio. Antonio thinks this is evil on Shylock’s account, and expresses this when he says to Bassanio:

‘The devil can recite scripture for his purpose.’

As Shylock is the one who is lending Antonio the three thousand ducats, he must decide the forfeit. This is Shylock’s chance to seek revenge over Antonio, so Shylock takes his opportunity. Shylock decides upon a forfeit that only an evil monster could think of. Shylock says:

‘let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me.’

Both Antonio and Bassanio are shocked by this outrageous forfeit, and Bassanio pleads with Antonio not to take the loan from Shylock. However, Antonio agrees to seal the bond, and ergo arranges to meet a solicitor to sign this bond.

The next evidence of Shylock being a monster is found in Act 2 Scene 2. This scene begins with Lancelot Gobbo, the clown, stood alone, having a conversation with himself. This scene is intended to be light-hearted comedy for the audience as Lancelot is pretending to be the good side and the bad side of his own conscience. He is seen to jump from left to right as he pretends to be each side of his own conscience, making this an amusing part of the play.

Lancelot’s dilemma is that he cannot decide whether or not he should leave Shylock to serve Bassanio. Lancelot says:

‘I should stay with the Jew my master who – God bless the mark! – is a kind of devil.’

Lancelot apologises for the words that he was going to say, and then says that Shylock is a kind of devil. Lancelot also says:

‘Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation.’

The two aforementioned quotes both emphasise that Lancelot is so unhappy serving Shylock that he thinks that Shylock is the devil.

Further on in this scene, Old Gobbo, Lancelot’s father mentions that he has a present for Shylock. As Lancelot thinks that badly of Shylock, he says to his father:

‘My master’s a very Jew. Give him a present? Give him a halter!’

As Lancelot is telling his father to give Shylock a halter, he means that he wants Shylock to go and hang himself.

A stronger piece of evidence from this scene is also in this same caption of text:

‘…you may tell every finger I have with my ribs.’

In saying this, Lancelot means that Gobbo would be able to run his fingers over his son’s chest and count all of Lancelot’s ribs. This means that Shylock does not feed Lancelot very well, and as a result, Lancelot is now quite thin.

Another small quote from this caption of speech shows us a reason why Lancelot would prefer to be with Bassanio and not Shylock:

‘…Master Bassanio, who indeed gives rare new liveries…’

This means that Bassanio will give Lancelot a splendid fashionable uniform, as opposed to Shylock who makes no outstanding effort to dress his servants.

The next evidence that Shylock is a monster comes from the Jessica plot, during Act 2 Scene 3. Jessica and Lancelot are talking outside Shylock’s house. Jessica is upset that Lancelot is leaving her, and she expresses that she hates her home life, and that Lancelot cheered the house up, in saying:

‘Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.’

Once Lancelot has said his farewell, he exits, leaving Jessica stood alone. She says goodbye to Lancelot, and in her closing speech, she expresses her hate for her father, Shylock, and says what a monstrous sin it is, in saying:

‘Alack, what heinous sin is it in me to be asham’d to be my father’s child!’

Shylock re-enforces his monstrous hate towards all Christians when he, in Act 2 Scene 5,says:

‘To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces.’

Shylock is saying that Christians are fools, especially those wearing painted masks.

The next evidence that shows how Shylock is an evil man comes in Act 2 Scene 8. Solarino and Solanio are chatting about the news that Shylock has been robbed, Lorenzo is missing and that Antonio is in trouble. Shakespeare has decided not to show the audience the reaction of Shylock when he finds his daughter is missing, and he has been robbed, but instead, Solanio imitates the reaction of Shylock. Shakespeare has probably done this so that the audience is more amused, and so that the audience do not start to sympathise with Shylock.

We see Shylock’s extent of misery when Solanio is reciting the words of Shylock in the streets of Venice at the point where he discovers these terrible events. Shylock’s words are as follows:

‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!’

These are powerful words from Shylock. We find it difficult to tell which Shylock is most devastated about: his ducats or his daughter. Also, we cannot be sure whether or not Shylock is most upset about the fact that his daughter has rejected him, and permanently left him, or because his daughter has converted to Christianity. I think this shows that Shylock is a monster because any normal person would be destroyed that their very own offspring had rejected them. Shylock is also evil in this case because he wants the law, and the Venetian justice system to handle this crime, which as we know, is a very reputable feature of Venice at that time in history.

Antonio has had trouble with his ships at sea, and Shylock hears word of it. During Act 3 Scene 1 Shylock is talking to Solarino and Solanio about this, and showing his hatred towards Antonio, can only in obsession with the bond say this to them:

‘Let him look to his bond. He was wont to call me usurer; let him look to his bond. He was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look to is bond.’

This shows that Shylock wants to go through with the forfeit, and wants Antonio to know that he will have what is coming to him.

After Shylock has said this, Solarino asks what good a pound of flesh would be to Shylock. As Shylock is obviously prepared to take his pound of flesh, he has already thought of uses for it, and he replies:

‘To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.’

This also shows that Shylock is out to seek revenge over Antonio, and is willing to kill Antonio to complete his objective.

Further into the scene Shylock says to Tubal something that confirms Shylock’s hatred towards Jessica. In saying the following, he expresses that he would want his daughter dead so that he can have the jewels back that Jessica stole from him:

‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear.’

As well as these powerful words about his daughter, Shylock also explains how much he misses his ducats by saying:

‘Thou stick’st a dagger in me; I shall never see my gold again.’

In saying this, Shylock is literally asking Tubal to stab him because he can no longer bear the pain of his missing ducats.

During Act 3 Scene 2, the subject of the bond arises. As Jessica is present in this scene, she contributes to the discussion. She tells the group of some things that she had heard her father talking about with Tubal, Chus, and his countrymen. Jessica’s quote from Shylock further addresses his hatred towards Antonio. Jessica says:

‘…he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the sum that he did owe him…’

This quote means that Shylock would indeed rather have the flesh than any amount of money, and that unless a court denies Shylock the permission to take the flesh, then Antonio is doomed.

Act 3 Scene 3 is the scene where Shylock orders the Jailer to arrest Shylock. Antonio pleads for Shylock to listen, but as Shylock is so evil, the expected response is given:

‘I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak; I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.’

The final scene in which Shylock is included is Act 4 Scene 1, the trial of Antonio. As Shylock enters the court, the Duke tells Shylock that he, and everyone else, believes that Shylock will show mercy at the last minute, but we can only expect the worse as this is Shylock. Shylock says:

‘by our holy saboath I have sworn to have the due and forfeit of my bond.’

This means that Shylock has sworn by their ‘holy Saboath’ and therefore the forfeit should take place.

‘If you deny it, let the danger light upon your charter and your city’s freedom!’

This means that if Shylock is denied his bond, then he wishes danger upon the city.

‘A weight of carrion flesh than to receive three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that – but say it is my humour…’

This means that Shylock wants rotten flesh rather than three thousand ducats, but will only give the reason that it is for his humour.

Bassanio offers to pay Shylock six thousand ducats in order to end the trial, but Shylock does not want to hear it. Shylock says:

‘If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them, I would have my bond.’

Further into the trial scene, Portia, who incidentally is dressed as a male lawyer, asks Shylock to be merciful. As per usual, Shylock’s stubborn personality gives us an answer that we would only expect from one man:

‘On what compulsion must I?’

Portia then goes on to deliver a fantastic speech about why mercy is such a great thing. This is to try and convince Shylock that everyone will like him if he is merciful, but Shylock does not fall into this trap:

‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond’

Shylock is becoming impatient and demands the forfeit to be carried out.

‘By my soul I swear there is no power in the tongue of man to alter me. I stay here on my bond.’

Shylock swears by his soul that absolutely no comment can alter the bond, and that he will not be moved.

‘Most learned judge! A sentence: come, prepare.’

Shylock is complementing the judge, in hope that it will hurry the judgement, and that the judgement will be in Shylock’s favour. Of course there is a twist, but we will come to that later.

Modern interpretations of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ will show Shylock as a victim rather than an evil monster. This is very easily understood. This interpretation is probably a result of the way Jews were forced to live in the ghetto, and the way in which so many Jews were slaughtered during World War Two. It would be frowned upon to laugh at the way Shylock is treated because it would be seen as politically incorrect. There is some evidence from the text that Shylock is treated unfairly, and that he is victimised.

Throughout the whole play, the only Jews are Shylock and Tubal. However, we only see Tubal in a minimal number of scenes, often leaving Shylock to be the only Jew present. This will often make Shylock an easy target for the Christians. When this happens, it makes the audience think that Shylock is being bullied on behalf of all Jews, which he is.

Shylock knows that Antonio speaks badly of him, and he points this out to Bassanio during Act 3 Scene 1. Shylock says:

‘He hates our sacred nation, and he rails even there where merchants most do congregate.’

This quote shows that Shylock is a victim, and also that in this play he does represent all Jews. The quote also tells us that Antonio talks about Shylock and his nation in a bad way to other merchants.

Antonio asks Shylock if he will definitely lend him the money, and Shylock breaks into a powerful speech about the ways in which Antonio has victimised him. The following quotes are taken from this speech:

‘In the Rialto you have rated me about my monies and my usances.’

This first comment means that at the Venetian stock exchange, Antonio has scolded Shylock about his financial deals.

‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.’

This means that Antonio has called Shylock names and spat on his gaberdine (Jewish coat).

‘You that did void your rheum upon my beard, and foot me as you spurn a stranger cur.’

This quote means that Antonio has spat on Shylock’s beard and kicked him.

‘You spat on me on Wednesday last, you spurn’d me such a day, another time you call’d me dog.’

The final quote from Shylock’s powerful speech is a summary of the ways in which Antonio has treated Shylock.

During Act 3 Scene 1, whilst Shylock, Solarino and Solanio are discussing the recent bad luck that Antonio had. During this discussion, the subject of Jessica arises. The three men are talking about how Jessica will be judged. Solanio directly insults Shylock by saying:

‘Out upon it, old carrion.’

In saying this, Solanio is calling Shylock a dirty old man. Further down this scene Shylock engulfs into yet another powerful speech, saying:

‘He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.’

Shylock is basically saying that Antonio has disgraced him, taken half a million ducats of Shylock’s profits from him, made fun of him when he has lost money, and mocked him when he has made money, said bad things about his country and religion, thwarted his business deals, alienated his friends and enraged his enemies. This speech will make people in a modern world sympathise with Shylock, whereas in Shakespeare’s time, people would have laughed at Shylock with Antonio.

The next scene that we come to with evidence of Shylock’s victimisation is Act 4 Scene 1, the trial scene. This is without doubt my favourite scene in this play. As this trial will take part in accordance with the Venetian justice system, all parties that will pass judgement must be completely neutral. The Duke, however, still shares the same opinion as the Christians. Rather than saying ‘Call Shylock into court’ the Duke says:

‘Go one and call the Jew into court.’

During the trial scene, the twist that I mentioned earlier takes place. As Shylock will not show mercy to Antonio, everyone is prepared and willing for Shylock to carry out the act of cutting the flesh from Antonio’s body. Portia, however, says that in the bond, nothing is mentioned about blood, and so orders Shylock to cut the pound of flesh from Antonio’s body, but if he spills a drop of blood, then Shylock will be punished. Shylock then decides that he shall take Bassanio’s offer and refrain from cutting the pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. Portia, however, decides that Shylock has to carry out the bond, but when Shylock is afraid to do so, he is punished. Shylock has all of his money confiscated and he is forced to become a Christian. Before Shylock leaves the courtroom, he says:

‘I pray you give me leave to go from hence; I am not well. Send the deed after me and I will sign it.’

This is the last time that we hear from Shylock in the play, and in Shakespeare’s time, people could only have rejoiced at Shylock’s misfortune, whereas in today’s society, people may have seen a side of Shylock that could only make them feel sorry for him.

Shakespeare uses language to good effect in this play. As this play was written in approximately 1600AD, the language is old English. This makes difficult reading, and can make it significantly harder to understand the comical aspect of the play.

During each scene of the play, every character uses an appropriate level of language skill to suit their roll in the play. This is especially true in the case of Lancelot, the clown of the play. When he is having the dilemma of whether or not to leave Shylock, he is speaking in an amusing way, but when Bassanio comes along, he changes his tone completely. As Lancelot wants Bassanio to employ him, he starts to speak in a more formal manner. Lancelot, however is not adapted to this way of speaking, and makes silly mistakes.

Throughout the whole of the trial, every character is speaking in a formal and advanced way. Shakespeare uses rhetorical questions with great effect in this scene, as well as during the rest of the play. Shylock asks many questions that make the audience wonder about the outcome of the trial.

During the scenes that involve friendly discussion, a more informal tone is used. This is good for the audience because it will help them to understand the level of seriousness in the scene.

My own evaluation of Shylock is that Shakespeare created him for one purpose: to be evil. I believe this because there is a substantial amount of evidence throughout the play that can be interpreted to support this view. I also think that Shylock deserved his punishment at the end of the trial, and that it was completely fair.

I think that having Shylock as an evil man who is excluded from the pantomimesque happy ending of the play makes it a much more effective ending. In this play, Shylock was definitely created to represent all Jews, (even though there is another Jew in the play), and was created to be laughed at by the audience. We also know that Shylock is not a complete victim because he has a close friend called Tubal, with whom he freely discusses Antonio’s fate.

I think that there is not enough evidence in the play, even through modern interpretation, to say that Shylock is a true victim. In my opinion, it is fair to say that Shylock is definitely not funny, but he is a character who is laughed at for the way that he is treated by other characters in this play.

I think that had this play been written in a modern time, it would most definitely have been banned. I believe this simply because of the extensive racism throughout the whole play, and this would certainly deem ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to be politically incorrect.

In comparison to other plays written by William Shakespeare, for example ‘Henry V,’ ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was relatively easy to read and understand.

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