Merchant of Venice Shylock Analysis
Robert F. Kennedy stated, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. ” In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the core of all ripples. He lashed out against the prejudice that was thrust upon him and is considered evil for doing so. The Merchant of Venice brought together different characters of different religions.
Shakespeare used characters in this play to reflect sixteenth century views on Christianity and Judaism. The character Shylock wass used to embody the religious conflicts of the Elizabethan era. Throughout the play, Shylock’s character fluctuates on the fine line of villain and victim. Shylock’s villainy began in the early stages of the play. In the first act, one aspect of Shylock’s nature was clearly revealed. In act one scene three Shylock exclaims, “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. In this quote he complains that Antonio, by lending out money for free, brings down the interest rate at which he can lend money. Shylock’s greed was especially apparent towards the beginning of the play, and statements like these help illustrate of what Shakespeare’s audience would recognize as the stereotypical Jew. Shylock’s tendency for unreasonable and selfish behavior was demonstrated once again in act one scene three when he states, “Be nominated for an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/ In what part of your body pleaseth me. This quote shows the epitome of Shylock’s evilness. It can be assumed that Shylock intends to seize Antonio’s life from his addition of “In what part of your body pleaseth me. ” The only true victory to Shylock was to obtain Antonio’s heart and achieve revenge for all the wrong that Christians have done to him. This duality of Shylock being portrayed with positive points as well as bad was developed further at the end of act 1. Early on in the play Antonio described Shylock as the Devil and stated, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Act1 scene 3 line 107).
The ‘devil’ is described in the dictionary as, the supreme spirit of evil and nowhere in the text or in Shylock’s actions does it suggest this. Clear resentment and tension was shared between Shylock and Antonio. In one of Shylock’s monologues he explained, “I hate him for he is a Christian” (Act 1 scene3 line 42). A contemporary audience during Shakespeare’s time would have been deeply offended at this attempt to degrade a Christian and this would have easily made Shylock evil in their eyes. Due to Shylock’s lower status in this scene he spoke in prose, whereas Antonio spoke in verse.
This showed the difference in position between the two characters and the wide gap linking Judaism and Christianity. Respect for Shylock may be less easily attained when he doesn’t offer any to Antonio. When the bond was made between Antonio and Shylock it is easy to see how Shylock’s character can be considered the devil as he binds Antonio to contract, “An equal pound/ of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken” (Act 1 scene 3 line 161). Requesting a pound of flesh was possibly a little too extravagant; it suggested that he was capable of and willing to take a life.
Making Shylock more a butcher of animals than of humans was also quite primitive imagery. Antonio in this scene appeared to be perfectly fine with the agreement he made with Shylock. He was very confident and didn’t seem threatened at all by Shylock. Therefore, Shylock cannot really be considered a genuinely bad person as Antonio has indicated if he’s not even threatening. Shylock became the victim at the court of the Duke of Venice. The Duke immediately feels sorry for Antonio, even though he is wrong. Shylock was treated unfairly because of his religion, rather than solely because of his own character.
Shylock was immediately asked to drop the charges that he made when the Duke says, “Forgive a moi’ty of the principal” (Act4 scene 1 line 27). Sympathy was automatically shown to Antonio because he is Christian. As soon as Portia arrives, things worsened for Shylock. In order to remind the audience of his religion Portia doesn’t refer to him by name but ‘Jew’ as if that was his title. She uses the phrases “The Jew shall have all justice” (Act4 scene 1 line 335) and, “Tarry Jew” (Act 4 scene 1 line 116). These show pure disrespect for Shylock and his beliefs.
It must be taken into account also that Shylock has no one to side with him. He was completely alone and received no help from any character in the play. This could suggest that he is the true victim rather than the villain and also that he staying true to his religion, not converting to Christianity because that will make his life easier. The treatment of Shylock draws different reactions from people of varying time periods. A Shakespearian contemporary audience would have possibly considered him the villain because he was Jewish, and his character wouldn’t have mattered.
A modern audience could have easy thought the opposite. Shylock certainly doesn’t fit a conventional profile of ‘the devil’, although there are elements of ‘the villain’ in his character. This negative portrayal is continually undermined with others taking over the role of evildoers. Like all people, Shylock has his good and his bad qualities. The important thing, is how he exerts them. While he wobbled between evil and innocent, he clearly proved the latter. Shylock may be the villain in 1598, but not in 2011. The ripples have echoed for four hundred years and finally, Shylock needs no revenge.