Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice Essay - Essays


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 remarks to Shylock throughout the play, despite his compromising situation. In Act I, scene iii, Antonio compares Shylock to the devil, who can "cite Scripture for his purpose" (l. 94), and readily admits to calling Shylock a dog in the Rialto. Antonio not only lacks any remorse for his treatment of Shylock, but he even insults Shylock directly in this scene despite the fact that he is attempting to borrow money from him: "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too" (ll. 126-127). Although Antonio should not insult Shylock if he expects to borrow money from him, he does so anyway because of his racism and his disagreement with Shylock's business practices. Despite these comments, Antonio appears to relent at the end of the scene, saying that there is "much kindness in the Jew" and referring to Shylock as "gentle Jew." These terms, however, are condescending. Antonio equivocates kindness with Christianity: "The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind" (l. 174). This parallel also relates to the Christian mercy/pagan revenge concept later on in the play. Antonio's attitude and treatment of Shylock in this scene is characteristic of many characters in the play, and is one of the sources of Shylock's resentment of Antonio and his friends.

However, racist treatment is merely the surface of Shylock's dislike. During his aside in Act I, scene iii, Shylock mentions the deeper reason for his hatred of Antonio: "But more, for that in low simplicity/He lends out money gratis and brings down/The rate of usance here with us in Venice" (ll. 89-41). Although Shylock's racism does affect his impression of Antonio, it is clear that Shylock is more concerned with Antonio's effect on his business. This is consistent with his reaction to events later on in the play. Shylock's resentment of Antonio's business dealings and religion lead him to thoughts of revenge in this scene, before the means of...

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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 Christian husbands), but those opinions matter very much in the scene.

Another theme that dominates Act IV, scene i is mercy and justice. Shylock's reason for claiming his pound of flesh is that he demands the justice that should be provided to him through the bond. When the duke asks Shylock how he can ever expect to have mercy if he does not give it, Shylock responds that he does not need mercy because he has justice on his side: "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" (l. 89). In this scene, Shylock demonstrates the view that justice and mercy are at odds with each other. For Shylock, having mercy means that he...

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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...

(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...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster