In Elizabethan England, it seems the Jewish race had been almost completely shunned and abolished. They were expected to be hated; considered a form of human far lower than that of a Christian. This wasn’t questioned, and wouldn’t be considered overly important anyway as the vast majority of the population would never have come across a living Jew. They knew about them only from the Bible, from old stories and hanDed down accounts, which would establish Jews as villains.
For the most part of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Shylock can be perceived in the same way but, there are many points in the play when it’s debatable that Shakespeare intended him to be. Shylock isn’t the Elizabethan stereotype of a Jew, although he’s spiteful, materialistic and deceitful he’s also intelligent and fair, and his deficiencies are often shared or have been motivated by the Christian characters mistreatment of him and his faith.
The audiences of Shakespeare’s time would expect Shylock to be a malicious character as soon as they’re warned that he’s Jewish, and the Christians on stage reciprocate this feeling by referring to him simply as ‘the Jew’ or ‘the villain Jew’. They don’t like to differentiate between the Jewish race by naming them – as though they share a single persona. The main reason that the Christians are thought to be so anti-Semitic in the first place is because they held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
Of course the Jews that they’re prejudiced against had nothing to do with it, so perhaps by thinking of them as the same being makes the Christians think that they’re justified in treating Shylock as if he’s villainous. It would be hard to persuade audiences against this idea and Shylock’s character is hardly of morale perfection. Shylock refers to his Jewish friend as ‘good Tubal’ and repeats his name unnecessarily, perhaps this is just down to his excitement and gratitude, but maybe he does this to make up for the way that they’re normally addressed.
The audience are less likely to accept the more brutal way that the Jews are treated, if they consider them to have titles and personalities. The way the Christians treat Shylock is varied though. Gratiano openly displays his detestation towards Shylock, he calls him a ‘currish Jew’ and mocks Shylock when his bond is turned against him; ‘a second Daniel! I thank thee, Jew for teaching me that word’.
The audiences Of Shakespeare’s time would probably have approved of this reaction, however it’s also been made quite clear that Gratiano is not a particularly reliable character. Even Bassanio – his friend – is unconvinced of the validity in Gratiano’s views; ‘Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing’, so perhaps Shakespeare’s discouraging the negative opinion Gratiano and the audience have of Shylock.
I feel that Bassanio in comparison, shows a greater measure of tolerance for Shylock, because of the respect he treats him with when persuading him to lend Antonio the money that Bassanio requires – calling him sir, and pleading with him rather than pressurising him ‘May you stead me? Will you pleasure with me? ‘ and because of his readiness to let Shylock leave without punishment after his bond has been turned against him. If the Elizabethan audiences considered that Bassanio was a greater Christian for his dedication to being merciful, perhaps they’d follow in his example and forgive Shylock’s villainous acts.
It’s unclear whether the final outcome of the court scene is one of mercy; Antonio seems to think he’s doing the right thing by ordering Shylock to ‘presently become Christian’ and perhaps he honestly thinks that Christianity will help Shylock, and other Christians might consider this act compassionate. But Shylock is extremely dedicated to his religion. He’s obviously aware of the reception he receives for practicing his faith, but he doesn’t make any attempt to suppress it; ‘your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into! and he is so disgusted by the Christian faith; ‘I have a daughter; would any of the stock of Barabbas had been her husband rather than a Christian! ‘.
Antonio forces him to go against everything he believes in and although there is not much evidence of Shylock’s reaction to this in the text, I’d think changing his religion would endlessly torment him which is a far more pitiable life than Shylock would have expected if he’d remained Jewish. Traditionally Christians condemn Jews for practicing usury which the Christians aren’t strictly allowed to do.
Shylock is no exception to this and is particularly devoted to earning a profit. This would only heighten Christian’s intolerance of Shylock and the Jewish stereotype that’s been embedded in their minds. Perhaps it’s partially out of kindness that Shylock doesn’t force Antonio to break from his religion by allowing him interest; ‘take no doit of usance for my moneys’ but I think it’s simply because Shylock’s desire for vengeance is stronger than his desire for money; ‘catch him once upon the hip’.
What – the majority of audiences would agree – should be a higher priority than this, is his attachment to his daughter Jessica, but when she elopes and converts to Christianity it’s unclear which he misses more; ‘Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! ‘ Throughout the play Shylock has a kind of faith in the law, he makes sure everything concerning his bond, in particular is official and correct, so all the spiteful things he did were done fairly; he played by the Christian’s rules.
Here, though, if he is only referring to the fact that ‘justice’ should grant him the return of his money then I’d consider him villainous for valuing material over his daughter. I think instead he means that he expects Jessica to be returned to him by law, in the same way as if she were another of his possessions. While it is of course a different time period where this would be considered more valid, I think he likes having control and power over people in a culture where he is allowed so little.
I think part of the reason Shylock sought revenge on Antonio was to earn some respect from the Christians, and it seems they offer him very little, as Shylock reminds Antonio; ‘spet upon my Jewish gaberdine’. While I think murder is quite an excessive way to achieve this, if the Christians hadn’t treated Shylock so badly, he wouldn’t have decided to act the way he did. At this point, Shylock’s lost both his servant and his daughter to Christian influence, so it’s understandable that he’d feel bitter toward them and feel he deserves the control that they’ve taken from him.
It’s possible that this is what cultivated his dedication to seek revenge on Antonio. What goes against the possibility that he desires Antonio’s life in a kind of substitution for Jessica’s, is the fact that before Jessica left, she ‘heard him swear … that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the sum that he did owe him’, so Shylock was obviously serious about his agreement before she’d deserted him – despite the fact that to Antonio’s face he claimed it was a ‘merry bond’. So his reaction can’t be justifiable.
However if Shylock’s daughter is so fickle that she can exploit her father’s intentions to his enemies – seemingly – without care, then perhaps it’s understandable that he didn’t grieve long for her absence and was more concerned over his money. This indifferent relationship contrasts with the one Portia seems to have had with her father, though he’s not alive during the play, she is loyal to him in the way that she chooses her husband based on the criteria that he set out for her – the caskets. But perhaps she’s only loyal to him because he was caring enough to consider the matter.
Shylock on the other hand didn’t pay enough attention to his daughter to notice her relationship with Lorenzo. I consider the way he neglected Jessica to be quite villainous. Modern viewers are generally quicker to criticise Christian characters for their apparent hatred of Jews, in particular Antonio, who compares Shylock to the devil and says that Shylock is ‘like a villain’. Shylock is, even so, guilty of behaving in a similar way and says he hates Antonio simply because ‘he is a Christian’, his speech however is said behind Antonio’s back.
This highlights his dishonesty, and it’s likely that Elizabethan audiences would condemn him for that, but you could argue that Shylock only does this because he has to. Christians considered themselves above Jews and exercised a certain amount of power over them, which restricted the Jewish from speaking their minds and allowed the Christians the freedom to speak to the Jews as maliciously as they saw fit. This is what seems to happen with Shylock and Antonio. Therefore I don’t think this makes Shylock a deceitful person, because he’s been forced to act this way.
In the court scene, the roles are reversed, and Shylock is very much control of Antonio. However Antonio makes no attempt to save himself or directly abuse Shylock, instead he resigns to Shylock and accepts his apparent fate; ‘The weakest kind of fruit drops earliest to the ground, and so let me’. Antonio doesn’t think to apologise for the way he treated Shylock, even now he’s seen the consequences of his actions, so although he seems the victim here and Shylock the villain, perhaps on some level, Antonio thinks he deserves his punishment.
The situation is quite similar to the crucifixion of Christ, in the past Jews have been persecuted for their association with these circumstances, and it’s unlikely Shylock was any exception to this. I feel he’s attempting to do what he’s been unfairly blamed for – the murder of a Christian. While I don’t feel this makes his intentions justified, I think it makes them more reasonable; I don’t blame him reacting the way he did. I don’t think Shakespeare intended for Shylock to be interpreted as a villain, because although Shylock’s retaliation to Antonio’s maltreatment is quite callous, the way that he executed it was, on the whole, honest.
In the sense that Antonio was aware of what he was getting himself into, and because of the emotion and dedication Shylock displayed towards attaining acceptance and equality. I think that having a variation of viewpoints in the play, makes what would have been a near anarchistic idea – for the audience Shakespeare expected to see it – more palatable. Shylock is continuously abused and belittled throughout the play, particularly in his last appearance where he’s left completely broken and depleted, so while I don’t consider Shylock completely innocent, ultimately I consider him a victim.