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Shylock: Victim or Villain?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2985 words Published: 3rd Aug 2021

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“The Merchant of Venice” is one of Shakespeare’s most well known comedies and was written in the late 1590’s. The play is set mainly in Venice, which at the time was the city of trade, and which Shakespeare’s audience would have found exotic. At this time, Jews were treated very badly and were frequently excluded by their community. The themes of the play are revenge, mercy, and justice. Shylock, with Antonio is the major character in the play, at times referred to as a villain and sometimes a victim. The dictionary defines a villain as “a cruelly malicious person” and a victim as “a person who is deceived or cheated”. However the question still remains: Shylock victim or villain?

Shylock does not appear at the start of the play for one key reason I believe, which is Shakespeare wanted the audience to see Shylock enter by himself for dramatic effect. Shylock’s first appearance is in Act 1 Scene 3, which is set in Venice. Shylock is rather teasing as he makes Bassanio sweat for a simple one-word answer:

“Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound”

“Three thousand ducats: I think I may take this bond”

Evidently, Shylock is repetitive and he is controlling the dialogue. The audience would not enjoy Shylock attaining power especially over Bassanio , who is a Christian. The word “bond” is a key word used consistently through the play especially by Shylock. The word “bond” is powerful language of the law and portrays Shylock as a dignified human being. Shakespeare’s intention here is to show how Shylock constantly wants to be in control, but as we see later in the play this is not always the case.

Shylock admittedly says he hates Christians, which is very racist:

“I hate him for he is Christian”

Clearly this language shows that Shylock is prejudiced and this quotation would shock the contemporary audience, as they would be predominantly Christian. The way this phrase is constructed is very interesting and typical of Shakespeare. Shakespeare has cleverly written this sentence so that every word, bar, Christian has one syllable whereas the word Christian has two. This stresses the Christian part of the sentence so it will remain in the audience’s minds who they will be not pleased at Shylock.

Furthermore, whenever Shylock talks to either Bassanio or Antonio, he rarely uses gracious language. “Curs’d”, has unpleasant connotations which show the audience that Shylock does not have any respect. Shylock’s bond has an extreme condition to it:

“for an equal pound of your fair flesh”

This shows that Shylock wants revenge if his money is not repaid. The language is simple, but effective. Shakespeare uses alliteration to make the point “fair flesh” stand out. This phrase would cause high dramatic tension.

Shylock has been called a dog, an insult for a Jew, “….cut throat dog”. At this time people believed in the chain of being which was a hierarchy of beings. Dogs as animals were at the bottom of this chain so this insult is even worse. Unfortunately, at the time of the play it was common for Jewish people to be insulted in this way. The imagery is revolting. A “cut throat dog” suggests death and execution which would make the audience shiver.

Additionally in Act 2 Scene 2 we see an insight into Shylock’s domestic life from his servant Lancelot:

“the Jew is the very devil incarnation”

Shakespeare has cleverly included Lancelot in this scene so the audience can get a perspective of what Shylock the man is really like. Therefore when he calls Shylock a devil the audience knows that Lancelot does not have any respect for him. The word “devil” adds to the running motif in the play as Shylock is always referred to as devil-like. In context Lancelot should respect his master not deceive him. Loyalty is a major theme of the play and there is none between these two characters.

Lancelot wants to run away from Shylock, his master:

“I will run as far as God has any ground”  which shows deep hatred for Shylock, and leaves him believing that Lancelot is running away because Shylock is treating him badly

In Act 2 Scene 3 we see Shylock’s daughter Jessica who does not like her own house, “Our house is hell” “Hell” is a strong word in the play and this image of Shylock recurs throughout the play. This simple language is monosyllabic which shows Jessica’s lack of happiness. The audience would feel sympathetic towards Jessica as she is alone with Shylock who in the eyes of the audience is portrayed as a monster. Shakespeare’s purpose here is to show the audience what Shylock’s own blood and flesh thinks of him, evidently deep loathing. What makes this more convincing is the fact that Jessica is saying this because she has known Shylock her whole life and she still hates him.

In the next scene Lorenzo compares Shylock to his daughter and evidently shows more lovingness towards Jessica and disrespect to Shylock:

“If e’r the Jew her father come to heaven, it will be for his gentle daughter’s sake”

We can see here how there is a contrast in the language used when referring to Jessica and Shylock. Firstly Lorenzo addresses Shylock as “Jew’ which is prejudiced, whereas he uses words such as “heaven” and “gentle” to portray Jessica. Shakespeare has cleverly carried out this contrast for effect because he wanted to make it clear to the audience who the villain really is. He also makes a religious joke at Shylock’s expense.

Shylock is malevolent to his servant Lancelot and extremely commanding:

“I do not bid thee call”

“Do as I bid”

The way that Shylock said this was in a mean manner and is harsh towards Lancelot. In both cases the language is monosyllabic and commanding which shows the audience that Shylock believes he has power over everyone.

At the end of Act 2 Scene 5 we see Jessica privately mutter to herself the controversial truth:

“Farewell, and if my fortune be not cross’d I have a father, you a daughter lost”

This is a very contentious phrase in the play. At this stage, we feel extremely sympathetic for Shylock, as he does not know that he is going to lose his daughter. This is extreme dramatic irony. Shakespeare’s language here is purposeful as he has used rhyming couplets for dramatic effect and also to stress the importance of these words.

In Act 2 Scene 6 we see a different side of Jessica. Jessica when running away is very deceitful and takes all her father’s wealth:

“Here, catch this casket, it is worth three pains”

This is tremendously emotional for the audience because here they are seeing a daughter running away from home and they know that regardless of what has happened that Shylock will be upset. In addition, Jessica is taking all Shylock’s wealth and money is a big theme of the play, which Shakespeare exploits here.

When Solanio finds outs that Shylock has lost his daughter and his money in Act 2 Scene 8 he teases Shylock but not to his face:

“My ducats and my daughter”

The structure of this sentence is clever. Firstly Shakespeare has used alliteration so the audience can clearly hear the words especially “daughter” and “ducats” as they are important here. I also noticed when depicting this was the arrangement of the words and I saw that the word “ducats” is before “daughter”. So this could infer how he likes his money more than his daughter. The contemporary audience would sympathise with Shylock as he is being mocked behind his back.

Act 3 Scene 1 was set in Venice, which was the place of business. Shylock is in the street by himself, whereas Solanio and Solario are together. This adds to Shylock’s vulnerability as he is alone with no friends and friendship is a vital theme of the play.

Salarino says to Shylock how different he is compared to his daughter, ‘Jet and Ivory’. Shakespeare uses an oxymoron to portray the contrast between them, which creates images in the audience’s heads which some may find funny an others ironic. This would build up tension between the two characters and shows Shylock as dark and Jessica as fair.

Shylock repeats himself for revenge again and has many horrific ideas such as the “pound of flesh”. Shylock also does not like how there is a big difference between Jews and Christians:

‘If you prick us do we not bleed’

Shylock has a lot of anger in him and has expressed himself very emotionally here. Shylock’s speech is in prose which makes it clear and it is from the heart. He is arguing for common humanity as he feels alienated and vulnerable. Here at the end of the speech I believe the audience would have been silenced as Shylock touches on some sensitive topics. The imagery created is extremely efficacious because Shylock has an extremely valid point and has divulged this with a rhetorical question. This would have an inducing effect on the audience because this phrase would leave them to answer this question in their own mind. The utilisation of a rhetorical question has enabled Shylock to communicate indirectly to the audience, which could influence their opinion of him.

After his speech Shylock becomes intrigued when he hears news that Antonio’s ships are sinking, “I’ll torture him”. Torture is a powerful word and very horrific, which shows deep desire to get revenge on Antonio.

In Act 3 Scene 3, Antonio has been arrested. Shylock takes the image of a dog and turns it around to the Christians. “If I am dog beware my fangs”. Here is evidence of how bitter Shylock has become and the tone in which he would say it would be sarcastic.

Act 4 Scene 1 is the central and most dramatic part of the play where both Shylock and Antonio settle their differences in a courtroom.

The Duke shows deep emotion for Antonio at the start, he refers to Antonio as “thee”. The fact that the Duke addresses him as “thee”, is quite significant as “thee” is used intimately. When Shylock first enters the room he is being questioned. “Shylock the world thinks”, this shows how they are trying to isolate Shylock. At this juncture the audience would have commiseration for Shylock because the contrast of how he is treated compared with Antonio, here Shylock is seen as a victim.

In the courtroom when Shylock replies he uses quite vengeful and powerful language and he uses a lot of language associated with animals. “forfeit”, “sworn”, “cat” and “rat”. These words are significant because they show his passion for revenge. The animal imagery is crude and based on vermin which makes Shylock seem uncanny in the eyes of the audience.

Later on in this Act we see Shylock with his knife:

“To cut the forfeiture”

The diction here suggests death immediately and these images are quite violent and would alarm the audience. The way Shakespeare brings the knife into this is he cleverly uses light relief from a minor character to bring this about.

Whereas Antonio’s language is noticeably simple and the audience would look at this, “I do”.This is significant because he knows that the end is approaching, so the audience would feel for Antonio because they know that Shylock is eager to kill him.

During the court scene, it is astonishing how Bassanio manages to insult Shylock, “cruel devil” This is a recurrent motif throughout the play but what is important about the timing of this insult is that it is in a court room which is supposed to be fair to all parties. So they are trying to play mind games with Shylock , these tactics would be viewed as unfair by the contemporary audience.

Shylock only seems to remember the bloody details of his bond, “I cannot find it”. This is quite ironic how Shylock was fussy about details about the “pound of flesh” but not when Antonio’s life is the issue. Evidently, this shows that Shylock does not want justice but revenge and the audience would see that clearly.

Antonio becomes emotional, when he knows the end is near:

“you may as well do anything most hard”

This is a piece of rhetoric stressing the future of his cause. The atmosphere is drastically tense, Shakespeare uses hyperbolic language to express emotional sadness. The fact that Antonio is nearing death makes the audience feel for him as his life is on the line.

Further, on in the court scene Antonio admits that he is doomed:

“the weakest kind of fruit”

This metaphor is compelling and would make the audience sad to see him scared. The imagery created by this is powerful in the sense that Antonio is like a fruit which is slowly but surely falling of the tree, this persuades the audience and reassures them who the villain is.

Portia pleads powerfully in her speech and uses two types of images to persuade him religious and monarchy. “God”, “mercy” and “sceptred”. This speech is the turning point and the audience may judge Shylock as a victim or villain on the basis of this speech. This is a powerful monologue for the audience who want salvation. The speech is noble and densely packed with images, ” throned monarch”. However some of the speech is not logical as it is about Christianity, but Shylock is a Jew. Nevertheless, the whole audience is swept away by this speech. Shylock’s response to this was extremely important. This is why Shakespeare uses unrhymed iambic pentameter to stress the significance of this.

“The penalty and forfeit of my bond”

This unrhymed verse is striking to the audience for various reasons. Firstly it contains law jargon which is a recurring habit of Shylock. Then it contains 10 syllables in the pattern of weak, strong, weak and it is extraordinary, how the strong stresses are on the key words of the phrase. Such as “penalty and forfeit”.

Further on in the Act Shylock is really eager, that he has bought his own scales to measure the “pound of flesh”, “I have them ready”. The audience would see this as quite peculiar and sickening that he has even brought his own scales to measure the flesh, it is almost as if he knew that this would be the outcome. Bringing the scales would cause immense trepidation for the audience for Antonio’s sake. The language is monosyllabic but awfully potent.

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As we see throughout the play Shylock demands for things to be done by the law, “is that the law?”. Shylock’s diction is short, which is showing his intent to get the trial over an done with, the contemporary audience would see this as vengeful. However I believe the modern day audience would probably understand that the law is imperative to abide by due to the modern day society are very aware of the consequences if laws are not followed.

Gratiano in the court mocks Shylock, “O learned judge”. This would make the audience laugh as Shylock previously was in a happy mood and said a similar phrase. Nevertheless, the power has moved from Shylock so he is not in a good mood anymore so Gratiano’s tone would be sarcastic.

When Antonio is free to go, he makes the request for Shylock to give up his faith as a Jew. The contemporary audience, who are mainly Christian, would be happy but telling Shylock to change his faith would seem unfair to some. The last words of Shylock are really quite heartbreaking

“I pray you give me”

These words suggest that Shylock is a beaten man, who has lost everything and the audience would take into consideration what he has done throughout the play and make their own judgements to whether he is a victim or villain. At the start of this scene, Shylock is walking into the court scene as a villain because he is getting revenge on Shylock whereas at the end of the court scene, he is a beaten man and the audience would empathize with him.

In conclusion, through analysing the play, in my opinion I believe Shylock is a villain for various reasons. Firstly he demands his “pound of flesh” and this is a recurring theme throughout of the play. Through disassembling each scene in the play he does not show any morsel of mercy ,whereas other characters have tried and I have taken this into consideration. However, I feel the modern day audience would perceive Shylock as a victim as today we live in an equal society where no one or faith is alienated from a community. After reading the play I can also see how other readers would view Shylock as a victim because he has lost everything including his family and he is the only character who ends of up with less than he started with. This play has numerous themes embedded into it and possibly the most important is friendship. What is quite ironic is that the two main characters of Antonio and Shylock do not have a partner at the end of the play! I was extremely lucky to be able to see the film of “The Merchant of Venice”. In the film, Shylock especially in the court scene is portrayed as a villain as the director shows him lurking in the background as if he is drawing up a plan in the court scene. In the film, the court scene is incredibly well directed because as in the play, there is a hostile reception for Shylock and he is constantly being jeered at.


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