In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is portrayed as a complex character, who is both a victim and a villain. Shylock is a victim of anti-Semitism and discriminated against because of his ethnicity. As a Jew living in sixteenth-century Venice, he is segregated from society and prohibited from working in certain sectors. Shylock is treated as an outcast and suffers from Antonio's harsh words and physical abuse. In act three, scene one, Shylock provides the audience insight into his motivation to exact his bond by telling Salarino that Antonio has disgraced him a half a million times and laughed at his misfortune. He proceeds to say that Antonio "mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies" simply because he is a Jew. Shakespeare then humanizes Shylock and creates sympathy for his character. Shylock goes on to say,
"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?" (Shakespeare, 3.1.54-62)
In addition to being a victim of discrimination and prejudice, Shylock's daughter also betrays him by eloping with Lorenzo and giving away his precious turquoise ring, which was given to him by his wife, Leah.
Although Shylock is certainly a victim, his character primarily functions as a villain, who is necessary to drive the plot of the play. Shylock refuses to exercise mercy and demands a pound of Antonio's flesh to feed his revenge. By threatening Antonio's life, Shylock indirectly jeopardizes Bassanio and Portia's marriage. Portia must come to Antonio's defense and cleverly outwits Shylock during the dramatic courtroom scene. Shylock also acts as an obstacle in Jessica's love life, and she is forced to flee under the cover of darkness to be with Lorenzo. Shylock's cold heart, greedy nature, and vengeful personality are what make him a villain. However, Shylock's mistreatment and tragic situation are what make him a victim.