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Shylock, in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, is a complicated character. While it is possible to feel some sympathy for him, he does create many of his own problems.
Several elements about Shylock do (or could, anyway) engender some sympathy from the reader. First he is a Jew, and in both the play and in history, Christians had a great and active disdain for Jews. To that extent, what happens to Shylock because he is a Jew makes him a sympathetic character. Second, he is a father whose daughter elopes without his permission and with his money; both of these things certainly create some sympathy for Shylock. Finally, he is a moneylender, a profession which Venetians abhor but whose services are evidently needed or Shylock would not stay in business. It is not a crime to do business and make money; in fact, most readers want to do that, too.
Other aspects of the moneylender are based on choices he makes, and they are less likely to prompt any sympathy from the audience. They are obvious and they provoke the audience to despise Shylock. He treats Antonio abominably, he seems to care more about his lost money than his lost daughter, and he is so insistent on revenge that he goes to court to get his "pound of flesh."
When the two things intersect, the issues become a bit muddied. Yes, Shylock is a Jew and therefore ostracized and tormented; however, he still makes the choice to react as he does. Yes, he does seem to care more for his lost ducats than he does Jessica; however, he is not without sentiment and mourns the loss of an inexpensive brooch his dead wife gave him. Yes, he refuses to show Antonio any mercy; however, Antonio has been abusive of Shylock for many years, including spitting on him in the Rialto. Yes, he is disdainful and even cruel to Christians; however, he makes the point that he learned such tactics from Christians.
In short, there are some extenuating circumstances behind some of Shylock's most heinous acts, but it is his famous speech in Act III and the sentence he receives which move me the most in terms of sympathizing with Shylock.
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, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. 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.
This reminder of his humanity is sufficient to make me feel some sympathy for him. His desire to exact revenge because of injustices is natural and makes him more sympathetic, as well, since most of us can relate to that; however, the degree to which he is willing to go and the depth of his hatred diminish my sympathies.
When Shylock loses his case against Antonio, his punishment is outrageous--just like so much of the treatment Shylock has received over the course of his life. He loses everything material that he has as well as the ability to earn; what is most devastating is his forced conversion to Christianity. He loses everything, and with that I sympathize.
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