There is a lot of controversy over whether the character Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a racial stereotype of a Jew, or whether he is actually the victim of a hostile Venetian society. The idea of Shylock as a bloodthirsty and mercenary individual is contrasted with his portrayal as a man with human instincts and feelings who understandably responds with hostility, to the relentless insults and abuse he receives from Christians.
We first learn of Shylock’s victimisation in Act 1 scene 3, where the bond is made between him and Antonio. We are told that Antonio has in the past insulted and abused Shylock without any regret just because Shylock is Jewish:
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine.
I feel that Shylock has the capability of handling confrontations with the Christians very well, as he can be humorous when he controls his temper by making sarcastic comments instead of insulting ones. For example, when Antonio has spoken about the bond, Shylock questions his request, stating there is not one thing Antonio has ever done to warrant Shylock lending him the money. Here he uses humour in a bitter manner:
Fair sir you spat on me on Wednesday last,
You spurned me such a day, another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys?
Shylock could also be interpreted as an aggressor in this scene when he talks about Antonio, ‘How like a fawning publican he looks’, but I think he has a justifiable reason for his behaviour. It is apparent that the only reason the Christians are now being civil towards Shylock is because they need him, and not because their feelings of hatred towards him have changed:
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
Shylock is victimised mainly because of his race; he is Jewish, and because of this he isn’t referred to by his name, ‘Shylock’, but as the ‘Jew’ which automatically singles him out as being different, and puts up a barrier between him and the rest of Venetian society. All of the Christians call Shylock names and think of him as evil. Even Shylock’s assistant, Launcelot, is derogatory about him behind his back, ‘Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation’, ‘the Jew my master who is a kind of devil’. I feel that Launcelot is very disrespectful towards Shylock, as we find out later in the play from Shylock that Launcelot is an indolent worker who wastes time and money:
The patch is kind enough, but a huge feeder,
Snail-slow in profit, and
If this is true, then Launcelot has no right to call Shylock animalistic and devilish names, as he himself is no better, ‘He sleeps by day more than a wildcat.’ However Shylock is also shown to be racist, ‘I hate him for he is a Christian’, but I see this as his retaliation from the relentless racial abuse he suffers from Antonio and most of the other Christians. He is a social outcast who is the laughing stock of Venice and is mocked by almost everyone, especially Solanio and Salerio:
As the dog did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
This happens after Shylock discovers his daughter Jessica has fled with a Christian; he is obviously going to be distraught, and instead of being consoling they take the opportunity to relentlessly mock him in front of the whole of Venice:
Why, all the boys in Venice follow him,
Crying, his stones, his daughter, and his ducats.
Shylock’s daughter Jessica is the one person who should have remained loyal to Shylock no matter what but she eventually betrays him and flees with her father’s most hated enemy, a Christian. I think her actions play a huge part in her father’s humiliation as she shows that even his own flesh and blood despises him, which gives the Christians another easy opportunity to ridicule him. They taunt him by suggesting that he is vastly inferior to her and consider her as “one of them”:
There is more difference between thy flesh and hers,
than between jet and ivory; more between your
bloods, than there is between red wine and rhenish.
She not only runs away but also takes with her his other treasured possessions, his money and jewels:
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter,
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones.
Those actions cause Shylock much grief, which the Christians find hilarious and see it as their role to mock him. There are two other ways in which Jessica shows total disrespect towards her father. These are that she is ashamed to be her father’s daughter, and a Jew, which she makes public knowledge, ‘I shall be saved by my husband, he hath made me a Christian’, and she sells Shylocks jewels in return for a monkey, ‘One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey’, revealing that she doesn’t value her father’s money and possessions which have been his ‘armour’ against the ridicule and abuse, even though we assume it was a ring given to him from his late wife. Jessica has no respect for her father’s loss of his wife, who is presumably her mother, showing that Jessica isn’t a loving, dutiful daughter, sharing her father’s grief.. When Shylock hears that his daughter has sold his ring, we are shown a side of him which we have never seen before, a compassionate side:
It was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I
Would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
This illustrates that he is capable of love and sentiment, despite what some people may think. After losing his dignity and pride, the one thing he had was the power and influence brought by money. Even this was taken from him by the one person he loved, leaving him defenceless, without money or jewels to cushion him in his role as an outcast.
In Shylock’s main speech in Act3 Scene 1, he talks of Christian people’s hypocrisy and questions the prejudices in Venetian society. It shows Christians to be unjust in their cruel treatment of him as he is exactly the same as them, and bears all the same feelings of anger, ‘If you wrong us shall we not revenge?’ and hurt, ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ This shows him to be a humane individual who experiences all the same things that a Christian does:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
Dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with
The same food, hurt with the same weapons?
This speech makes us feel nothing but sorrow and commiseration for Shylock because all he wants is to be treated equally:
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a
Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance
Be by Christian example? Why revenge. The villany
You teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
Will better the instruction.
He explains how Christians have set examples, which they are allowed to follow without receiving any retribution, but when a Jew follows them he receives nothing but revenge and punishment. I found this speech the most poignant of the whole play as the way Shakespeare wrote it makes Shylock seem so vulnerable as when he speaks so openly about his feelings, which he has not previously done. I feel that, as he hadn’t spoken in this way before something must have driven him to do it; the never ceasing abuse he suffered from the Christians.
I think the trial scene in Act 4 Scene 1 is where Shylock is most victimised. At the beginning of the scene he is portrayed as an aggressor, as he is shown to be driven by blood lust, and his desire to receive his bond:
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing.
However, all he is asking for is what is rightly his, as stated in the bond, a pound of flesh which is what he and Antonio agreed to. Shylock enters the courtroom at a loss, as he has nobody on his side to support him, everyone is against him. Even in the courtroom he is called names by the duke, which I think is appalling as the duke is meant to be unbiased in his judgement, ‘a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch’. Some people see Shylock as avaricious, but when offered six thousand ducats instead of the original three which was borrowed, he declines, and sticks to the bond, ‘I would not draw them, I would have my bond’.
To many, the pursuit of a bond which will result in his adversary’s death reveals Shylock to be a cold hearted, unmerciful, amoral and murderous man, but considering the years of physical and verbal abuse Antonio has shown towards Shylock, I feel the audience should be able to see his reasons for insisting that he has his bond and understand his vengeance.
The end of the trial scene victimises Shylock the most: when he is told that no blood is allowed to be shed, the bond cannot be carried out and Shylock cannot receive what is rightly his. The Christians are extremely hypocritical and show him no mercy by making him convert to their religion, and give all his possessions to his daughter who betrayed him, ‘he presently become a Christian.’ I think this is a spiteful act designed to cause Shylock as much suffering as possible, which goes against Christian laws of showing mercy.
I think that if Shylock was given a chance and not discriminated against because of his race; the people who believe he is an aggressor would perceive his character differently. I think Shakespeare wrote ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ to illustrate how racist the Elizabethan society was and highlight that no race is superior to another. He does this by showing Shylock to appear as a typical stereotype of a Jewish person; avaricious, bloodthirsty and merciless, but who is in fact victimised throughout the whole play. For example, the bloodthirsty bond, ‘an equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken from what part of your body pleaseth me’ results in Shylock converting to Christianity, and leaving all his possessions to his disloyal daughter Jessica. The Christians have to “succeed” because there was great fear of “heathens” and “infidels” at that time, making it a very popular theme for a play.