The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Examine Shylock's rhetoric. Pay attention to the quality of his language—his use of metaphor and repetition, for instance. How do his speeches reflect his character as a whole?

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Shylock uses language masterfully, both in communicating specific information and in rhetorical style that support the points he wishes to emphasize. His language use reflects both his identity as a Jew in a primarily Christian society, and his profession as a money-lender which requires him to be precise in contracts and business dealings. In addition, his personal sensitivity to the insults he has born is revealed.

In Act III, Scene 3, Shylock discusses with Salarino Antonio’s debt. He uses repetition to clinch specific points he is making, which are concerned with debt repayment as related to honorable behavior. Posing several questions, he replies to them himself with a single phrase repeated: “Let him look to his bond.”

In the same scene, in a longer speech about Antonio’s offenses against him, Shylock uses repetition again—not of exact phrasing but of rhetorical questions. These begin “Hath not a Jew . . . ” or “If," as in “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The repetition emphasizes qualities in common between Jew and non-Jew in Venetian society.

Later in that speech, he turns the question making and answering back to negative behavior: Building on the “if” structure he just established, Shylock intimates that “revenge” is the shared characteristic: “And if you wrong us, do we not seek revenge?” Earlier in the scene, Shylock had established “revenge” as important partly through using metaphor. When Salarino asked him what he would do with Antonio’ s pound of flesh, he replied he would bait fish with it. He thus establishes that the flesh is not meant literally, as the fish are metaphorical, standing for the revenge he plans to exact.

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Shylock does have a distinctive speaking style. When Bassanio asks to borrow three thousand ducats, Shylock repeats, “Three thousand ducats; well.” He continues to copy Bassanio’s words, adding “well” to the end of each sentence: “For three months; well.” Shylock does not answer Bassanio right away, suggesting that he is contemplating this business deal before making a decision. This indicates that Shylock is a calculated individual.

Shylock also uses much repetitive and colorful language, referring to pirates as “land-rats and water-rats, water-thieves and land-thieves,” again indicating that he thinks as he speaks and spins a web of language for listeners to figure out. He draws from the Bible to justify his actions, such as why usury should be allowed. Shylock explains in detail why Jacob actually profited from interest by breeding his sheep and thus increasing his fold. His measured, systematic speeches not only make Shylock a gripping storyteller, they make his arguments difficult to dispute.

Shylock’s most famous monologue defends his existence as a Jewish man. He asks a series of questions leading up to an answer: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he asks, listing the similarities between Christians and Jews until he gets to his point, “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.” His rationalization for his revenge is that Jews and Christians are alike in both good and bad ways, so of course they both seek vengeance when they are wronged.

It is important to note that many of Shylock’s qualities arise from antisemitic stereotypes. He represents the crafty, clever Jew, sinister but well-versed in religious texts. His language, which differs from other characters’ more straightforward syntax, suggests that he is an outsider, an “alien,” as Portia observes. Interestingly, Shylock’s use of rhetoric makes him perhaps the most compelling character in the play, and it makes his speech about Jews so powerful.

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