From Act 3 Scene 1, Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, why does Shylock say, ' to bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge'. Please explicate this statement with...

From Act 3 Scene 1, Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, why does Shylock say, ' to bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge'.

Please explicate this statement with respect to the whole of the play, bringing out his hatred for Antonio, how Antonio has disgraced him, mocked at him, disgraced his nation, incited his enemies, etc. 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In 1600, The Merchant of Venice was published; the title page read,

The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice, With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of flesh, and the obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests.

Despite this forbidding title, The Merchant of Venice is critiqued as a romantic comedy, a comedy of ironies, that is. For, while Shylock becomes the villain, he is a resourceful spirit who becomes ironically comedic in his reduction to lusting over a pound of Antonio's flesh upon a literal scale.

Shylock's hatred of Antonio is founded upon the history of Venice in which Jews were made to live in a ghetto. The word ghetto is believed to have originated from the Italian term "gheto" or "ghet" means slag or waste in Venetian; this term refers to a foundry where the slag was put on the same island where the Jews were confined. The Italian word borghetto is a form of borough. This condition explains Shylocks refusal to dine with Antonio,

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. (1.3.27-30)

There may be commerce and sociability between them, but spiritual practices and customs are separate. This displacement of Shylock makes him the butt of Antonio's jests and demonizing. Further, there is an antipathy for Shylock on the part of Antonio because the Venetian moneylenders do not charge interest--"lend upon advantage"--but Shylock does. When Shylock defends himself to Antonio, the Venetian insults him,

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek
A goodly apple rotten at the heart
O what a goodly falsehood hath! (1.3.95-99)

Angrily, Shylock responds to Antonio's religious insult:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have [be]rated me
About my moneys and my usances
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine [mantle]
And all for use of that which is my own. (1.3.103-110)

However, Shylock adds, when Antonio needs his help, then it is all right to come to him. Further, he reminds Antonio that he has even called him "Dog." To this Antonio reacts in anger, rather than apology. He tells Shylock he can lend him the money or not, for he can exact a penalty from an enemy as well as anyone else. Shylock is insulted; he replies that he "would be friends...have your love." He even says, "To buy his favor, I extend this friendship" (1.3.165). Indeed, it is Antonio's religious and racial insults which precipitate Shylock's demand for a pound of flesh. But, perhaps, above this, it is the rejection of Shylock's unexpected offer of friendship that causes him to seek revenge. Thus, in Act III, Shylock says: "To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge" (3.1.50-51) for all the insults and jests alluded to in Act I, and for being restricted to where he can live. 

"The villainy you teach me, I will execute and it shall go hard,but I will better the instruction" (3.1.67-68) Shylock concludes. In other words, he will treat Antonio and other Christians as badly as he has been taught; moreover, he may even outdo their lessons in his act of revenge for Antonio's insults and rejection of his earlier offer of friendship.

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The Merchant of Venice

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