From The Merchant of Venice: How is Shylock's relationship to the dominant Venitian culture represented and/or developed throughout the play?I have gone on a Shakespeare reading venture ever since...

From The Merchant of Venice: How is Shylock's relationship to the dominant Venitian culture represented and/or developed throughout the play?

I have gone on a Shakespeare reading venture ever since my friends and I got together to watch film adaptations of his plays. It's something they mostly wanted since I was never really into them in high school and university.

In reading The Merchant of Venice, I know that there is controversy surrounding Shylock's character, and it interests me, specifically because I don't see him as completely villainous.

My thoughts, however are somewhat convoluted as I try and piece together how Shylock's character relates to the dominant culture of the society in which he lives. I sometimes think that that may have a connection to how I could perceive him as one of Shakespeare's creations.

When I think of Shylock at the end of the play words such as submission (Shylock's forced conversion), rejection (Shylock towards dominant culture and vice versa), triumph (Venetian culture over Shylock) and ambivalence (contradictions within the play) come to mind in answer to my above question... but it all seems so contradictory, that I'm having trouble coming to grips with this curious character!

I'd love anyone's help in helping me put all this together!

Thanks to my future responders, I look forward to hearing your responses.

Expert Answers
scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with you that Shakespeare does not seem to intend for Shylock to be considered completely villainous.  My personal bias is that Antonio's suspect motives do not get the scrutiny that they deserve.  In regards to Venetian culture and Shylock, there are a couple of ways you can view Shylock in regards to the culture of his day.  First, readers must remember that Shakespeare's audience was largely the British; so his characterization of Shylock is also connected to the British culture of Elizabethan times.  Jews have a long history of persecution in Britain. They were forced into ghettos, expelled from the country for years, and prohibited from exercising the rights that many other immigrants had access to.  So, at the play's end, when Shylock loses everything, Shakespeare's general audience would have most likely found his fate humorous and well deserved.  However, I think that Shakespeare was trying to vere slightly away from the stereotypical portrayal of Jews in British works. While Shylock is money hungry and hard-dealing when it comes to business, Shakespeare's inclusion of the powerful "I Am a Jew" speech should evoke sympathy from most audience members, even some Elizabethan British.  Likewise, the play's ending should at least cause the audience to consider the vast unfairness of Shylock's sentence and isolation.

In regards to Venetian culture, even though Venice was a cosmopolitan trading hub accustomed to a variety of cultures and ethnicities, Jews still received unequal treatment during Shylock's time.  At the play's end, if Shylock had not been a Jew living in Venice, he would have most likely received "letter-of-the-law" treatment, but would not have been forced to relinquish his faith or business practice (usury). I also wonder if Venetian culture did not dominate Shylock's sentence if the court would have been so kind to a daughter and son-in-law who absconded with a man's hard-earned money and then preceded to waste it.

I am glad that you're giving Shakespeare a close look.  Merchant of Venice is one of the playwright's best in my opinion because of Shakespeare's ambiguous characterization of Shylock.  If you haven't read Othello (which is also partially set in Venice and hinges upon Venetian culture), it's a nice pairing for Merchant. In it you see a man isolated because of his race, but who has fit into Venetian culture better than Shylock does.