Is Merchant of Venice's Shylock villain or victim?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shakespeare seems to intend for Shylock to be a little of both.  While his Elizabethan audience would have laughed at Shylock's sentence (conversion to Christianity, loss of livelihood, and forced "donation" of all of his worldly goods to his son-in-law upon his death), modern audiences normally find the sentence quite harsh, especially since Antonio foolishly agreed to the contract with Shylock and willingly places himself into a dangerous position.

Yes, Shylock does not heed Portia's advice regarding showing mercy if one expects to receive mercy, and admittedly, his thirst for Antonio's blood is repulsive.  However, Shakespeare provides his audience with ample information regarding Antonio's ill treatment of Shylock, constant insults, and his desire to ruin the Jew financially.  He has many people in Venice and even in Belmont who are ready to bail him out, while Shylock is made the mockery of the Duke's court.

In the end, Shakespeare seems to be condemning Shylock's greed and obsession with revenge while also noting the Venetians' (i.e., all Christians) prejudice toward and unjust treatment of the Jews.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the play "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare, it is important to remember that the author shows us a man of pride as well as a man of vengeance. Christianity teaches that nearly everything can be forgiven if a person is truly sorry - look at the murderer Barrabas on the cross with Jesus. Jesus probably knew that Barrabas was a victim of circumstance and upbringing and din't know any better until he saw the light at the very end through Jesus love and suffering. Jesus told this villain that "this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" as a reward for his penitent sorrow which was genuine. Shylock, on the other hand was not sorry and was prideful to the end - he too was persecuted and a victim, but maybe he couldn't see or take that final step away from vengeance - and pride? He didn't have true contrition according to popular sentiment at the time.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

You will no doubt get a lot of opinions about whether Shylock is a villain or victim, and all of them will be valid. There is also the view that Shylock is both villain and victim. I would suggest that you consider a few things before making up YOUR mind.

Shylock is definitely a conniving, mean-spirited money-lender in this play. However, consider him in the historical context. The Elizabethan audience was for the most part Christian. They still held very prejudicial view of Jews and blamed them for crucifying Christ, which, by the way, is a perversion of Christianity because Christians believe that Christ was crucified for the sins of the world, everyone included, so it is our sin that cruicified Christ, not the Jews. Shylock bemoans the fact that:

'For sufferance is the badge of all our   tribe,

The Jews had been persecuted throughout Europe, kicked out of many countries. Everywhere Shylock goes, he is called a 'currish Jew" or a dog. Naturally, hate has built up in his mind and in his heart and if he can get even with non-Jews, he will, and in this play, he does. And Antonio is not innocent. He has not treated Shylock with respect in the past.

Shylock is very bitter and wants vengeance. So, can a person who has such hate in his heart really be a victim? Maybe.

But the idea of vengeance and getting even is antithetical to both Judaism and Christianity. Take the story in the Jewish Old Testament of Joseph. If anyone had the right to seek vengeance on his brothers, it was Joseph - they sold him as a slave. And yet, Joseph tells his brothers, "Am I in the place of God?" He tells them what they meant for evil, God meant for good, and he does not avenge himself against them. And in the New Testament, many places the idea is expressed that "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord."

So the fact that Shylock is  Jew does not excuse his vengeful heart. That's my view.

What do you think?

Read the play and analysis here on enotes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial