A Character Study of Shylock
Shylock is one of the most confusing characters in all of Shakespeare's plays. On the surface, he is a villain only concerned about money and revenge. Some critics, however, argue that Shakespeare takes this "stereotypical" Jew much further, making him a complex character whose sufferings at the hands of racists motivate his anger. While Shakespeare gives no definitive answer as to how Shylock should be viewed, he does make important points in support and in denial of this antagonist.
It should be noted prior to any analysis of Shylock that the idea of a villainous "Christianized Jew" may possibly stem from an incident involving the Elizabethan court in 1594. Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Christianized Jew who worked as the royal physician, was convicted of attempting to poison the Queen, despite questionable evidence. He was executed for his crime, all the time insisting that he loved the Queen as much as Jesus Christ himself. The Elizabethans found this statement humorous and the event in general interesting, prompting one acting troupe to revive Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta for several performances. It is widely believed that this incident may have provided the inspiration for Shylock.
Shylock first appears in the play in Act I, scene iii, when Bassanio attempts to borrow money from him in Antonio's name in order to pursue Portia. Through Shylock's aside in lines 37-47, we learn that, although Shylock has never met Antonio, he already hates him. The first reason is racial in nature—Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian. For this reason, Shylock will not associate with Antonio, Bassanio, or their friends beyond their business dealings:
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk
with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you,
drink with you, nor pray with you (ll. 32-34).
This comment becomes ironic by the end of the play, as Shylock will have done all of what he says he will not. Shylock also makes a comment in this scene about the "hard dealings" of Christians, which teach them not to trust anyone. While this may be true of Antonio and Bassanio, it is also true of Shylock, who loans money at interest in order to make a profit. The racist part of Shylock's hatred makes him no different from the Italians, who hate and mistreat Shylock for his religious beliefs.
Antonio makes disparaging...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)
Analysis of Act IV, Scene i
Act IV, scene i of The Merchant of Venice not only provides the climax of the play but also encapsulates all of its major themes. In this scene, the concepts of racism and justice combine to create the play's final results and to reinforce the points made through previous scenes.
Racism is apparent in the scene from its inception. The duke, who is in pretrial conversation with Antonio, calls Shylock "a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,/Uncapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy" (ll. 4-6). Shylock's inhumanity stems from his religion, and the implication throughout the scene is that, if Shylock were Christian, he would be more "human." This idea is continued by Antonio when he begs everyone to stop pleading with Shylock:
I pray you think you question with the Jew.
You may as well go stand upon the beach
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf,
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb
You may as well do anything most hard
As seek to soften that—that which what's harder?—
His Jewish heart (ll. 70-80).
Through the wave and wolf metaphors, Antonio clearly depicts Shylock as something less than human because of his "Jewish heart," and renders him incapable of pity or understanding.
The character who is most vociferous in his racism against Shylock is Gratiano. Because of his anger and resentment at Shylock's lack of mercy, Gratiano hurls several insults at Shylock, ranging from "harsh Jew" to "inexecrable dog." He also extends Antonio's comparison between Shylock and a wolf: "Thy currish spirit/Govern'd a wolf…for thy desires/Are wolvish, bloody, starv'd, and ravenous" (ll.133-138). Because of his anger and racism, Gratiano is the only person in the courtroom who urges both the duke and Antonio to have Shylock put to death immediately once the scene is resolved.
It should be noted here that although it is never specifically mentioned in Act IV, scene i, Shylock has racist opinions as well. We know from Act I, scene iii, that from his first entrance into the play, Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, a point which helps to motivate Shylock to revenge. Mentioning this in court would not be advantageous to Shylock in his suit, which is the reason that he never expresses his racist opinions (save the one about...
(The entire section is 1256 words.)
Portia's Boxes: Love in The Merchant of Venice
The sentimental storylines in The Merchant of Venice often get lost amid the play's more prominent themes. Although the idea of love appears only through the play's subplots, Shakespeare does make the theme prevalent enough to warrant attention. The play demonstrates that love exists in many forms, and is selfless and not self-serving. It also clarifies the importance of romantic vows and the nature of the marital relationship.
The first idea of love that is presented in the play is that it comes in many forms. Antonio demonstrates his love for his kinsman Bassanio throughout their relationship and even before the action of the play begins. From Bassanio's exposition in Act I, scene i, it is clear that Antonio has often assisted Bassanio in the past, and Bassanio owes Antonio a great deal of money, which he has not been asked to repay. Antonio does this because he loves Bassanio and is willing to sacrifice his fortune for his kinsman. It is this love that motivates Antonio to enter into the agreement with Shylock that will jeopardize his life:
Give me your hand, Bassanio. Fare you well!
Grieve not that I am fall'n too this for you;
Repent but you that you shall lose your friend,
And he repents not that he pays your debt (ll. 263-277).
Antonio is willing and ready to sacrifice everything that he has, including his life, for the benefit of Bassanio. Bassanio's love is equally strong—he immediately responds with a desire to sacrifice everything that he has, including his love Portia, to save Antonio. This deep love between friends was seen by the Elizabethans as a precursor to romantic love. If a man could demonstrate love for his friends, then he was capable of maintaining love for a woman.
Romantic love also appears in the Jessica/Lorenzo and Portia/Bassanio subplots. While the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo has already been established by the beginning of the play, we know that their love is strong enough to overcome the racism that both would be taught as members of different ethnic and religious groups. Their love is also strong enough to cope with the secrecy that accompanies the relationship until the elopement. Jessica sacrifices not only her father's love but her religion as well in order to marry Lorenzo:
Alack, what heinous sin it is in me
To be ashamed to be my father's...
(The entire section is 1447 words.)
The Merchant of Venice: A Directoral Approach
In preparing for a production of The Merchant of Venice the director is faced with several problems. Among the choices which are basic to picking a directoral approach are deciding what the play is about (the main theme), and how to enhance that choice through the physical setting. A key to both of these decisions is found in the definition of the character of Shylock.
The easiest, or readiest, interpretation of Shylock is that which paints him as a cantakerous, miserly old man. Filling Shylock’s role in this way we immediately set up a good/evil split between him and the other characters which allows the play to be produced as a simple love story with a particularly strong antagonist. Thus, the play might be about the victory of love over greed and revenge. But, such an interpretation is overly simple and leaves Shylock short of his due.
There seems little doubt that while this character of Shylock fills an antagonist's role he is by far the most completely drawn, most complicated, and most interesting character in the play. Evidence of this is the fact that the role is always filled by the star of the production. Basically, the other characters are all fitted to the classical Amarati mold and are in pursuit of only love for fulfillment. Brassiano must go to the length of getting a large favor from a friend so that he might follow his heart; likewise his friend Gratiano seeks his fortune in love by sharing Brassiano’s adventure; Lorenzo is driven to "stealing" his love away from her father. The women are all the picture of temperance, beauty, and duty, with Portia, perhaps, showing a bit more depth through her wisdom (a trait not always bestowed upon the ladies). But, it is Shylock and Shylock alone who is torn emotionally in a multiplicity of directions, including the hardship of being a member of a hated religious community. Here is a man who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't: he will be the butt of jokes and slurs which are readily hinged on both his successes and his failures. Here is a character who is successful in the vital businesses of the community and is condemned for non-conforming religious beliefs. And, here is a man who loses not only his only daughter but much of his worldly riches which she steals from him.
Certainly, then, the director's production choices hinge on his decisions about Shylock. Shakespeare would not have taken the time to make him so interesting had the...
(The entire section is 831 words.)