Shylock is introduced into the plot of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Antonio and Bassanio. He is approached by them when they are in search of money. They describe Shylock as “the dog Jew,” an example of how Bassanio and Antonio believe Shylock to be beneath them and how Christians thought themselves better than Jews.
My first impression of Shylock is an evil, bitter, sarcastic character, “The villain Jew” as he is frequently called by the Christians. He is prejudiced against anyone whose religion is not Judaism, “I hate him for he is a Christian” this shows that he judges Antonio by his religion before having properly met him. After the court scene Gratiano expresses intense dislike of him in the words: “O be thou damned, inexecrable dog,
And for thy life let justice be accused!”
Gratiano is implying he wishes Shylock to suffer in hell by using the word “damned” and calls him a “dog” yet again, showing extreme dislike and hatred towards Shylock’s character.
Although Shylock has an image of being strongly hated and a villain, Shylock can also be perceived by the audience as a victim, firstly when Jessica, Shylock’s only child, elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian taking many of his precious jewels and a lot of his money. Shylock has been deserted by his own flesh and blood, abandoned and robbed of his most precious possessions. Although Shylock appears a cold and cruel man, it becomes apparent that he does have compassion and concern within him. When Shylock discovers that his daughter has taken his turquoise ring his true emotions appear:
“Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my tur-
quoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have
given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”
This proves that Shylock had sentimental values and was not as shallow as he first appears. This also shows that the turquoise ring Jessica took from him meant more to him than all the other ducats and jewels that she had stolen. This restores some of the sympathy which was lost through his attitude towards Jessica.
Shylock, in many ways is an unlucky character, who is not very fortunate for various reasons. His daughter has left him for a Christian man, and he has been bullied all his life because of his religion of Judaism. Shakespeare shows how strongly Shylock feels about the way he is treated by his speeches throughout the play:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not
a Jew hands organs, dimension, senses, affections,
By using many rhetorical questions, Shakespeare has emphasised the feelings of Shylock and has made the audience feel sympathy towards him, portraying how upsetting it must be to be an outsider.
“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!”
This shows how Shylock is fed up of being discriminated against and despised by the Christians, and also how he has a strong desire for revenge against Antonio.
Another portrayal of Shylock is greedy, revengeful and sly. He has many speeches that illustrate this side to his character:
“To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it
will feed my revenge. 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 and what’s his reason? I am
This suggests Shylock is intent on killing Antonio with his bond. He has several motives behind this; Antonio has humiliated and mocked him many times and Shylock could profit financially from his death. However, the speech also insinuates that Shylock is fed up of being discriminated against.
Shylock’s part in the play ends when he leaves the court room in act four. At the beginning of this scene Shylock’s character appears vindictive and cruel, solely out to gain revenge on Antonio. He comes into the court with a balancing scale and a knife, ready to cut the pound of flesh. While the court question whether Shylock will have his bond, Shylock maliciously sharpens his knife on the sole of his shoe. Bassanio had offered Shylock three times the money, but Shylock would have nothing and kept repeating “I will have my bond”. This displays Shylock’s bloodthirsty and brutal nature, showing that he wants to kill Antonio for only one reason, revenge.
Shakespeare portrayed Shylock as a vengeful character whose actions revolved around his determination to harm Antonio. It is clear that he feels this way as he refuses the money offered to him, intent on fulfilling his bond. Though shown throughout as a villain, the play’s climactic scene conveys Shylock as the victim once more, similar to the earlier section of the play. The audience may sympathise with the character, due to the court’s decision to convert Shylock to Christianity. As this goes against all Shylock believes in, we perceive him as the victim.
I would conclude that Shylock is a complicated character for whom I have experienced conflicting emotions. Though he appears vicious and bloodthirsty at times, I sympathised with his character because of his heartache for the loss of his daughter and of course the forced action of changing his faith.