The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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Is the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a tragic character or something else?

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Shylock is a tragic character, but he represents more than  that to various audiences.  For Shakespeare's audience, Shylock would have been close to the Jewish stereotype found in many of the works of the Elizabethan era (and previous British writings).  In Shakespeare's time, the Jew was often portrayed as a greedy villain whom writers used for humor's sake.  Shakespeare does attempt to go beyond presenting Shylock as the stereotype of his day by eliciting some sympathy from the audience for Shylock's horrible plight at the play's end.  However, before this point, the playwright makes Shylock look rather foolish.  When Shylock discovers that his only child has eloped with a Christian and, more importantly, with his jewels, he states,

"I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear . . ." (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 87-89).

At this point, the audience laughs at Shylock's expense because he appears to be such a greedy, ornery old man that he would rather have his only child dead if he could regain his jewels.

Ironically, Shylock makes this statement right after his infamous "I Am a Jew" speech which powerfully criticizes the Christians' (and perhaps Elizabethan Christians') poor treatment of Jews.  Because of contrasts in Shylock's character such as this, it is not accurate to label him solely as one type of archetype.

Look at Act 4 to see how Shylock meets the qualifications of a tragic hero.  The audience does sympathize with him when he loses his possessions, his livelihood, and his faith.

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