To what extent is Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, defined by his religion and profession?
In order to tell his story, Shakespeare needed Shylock. In the Venetian society, Christians could not lend money for profit. The Jews were their bankers. Shylock is practicing one of the few professions that he could in Venice.
Shakespeare makes no bones about how Shylock is treated in that world. Antonio only goes to him because only Shylock can help him. There is no love lost between the two men. In Act I, scene 3, when Antonio is asking him for the loan, Shylock in his speech beginning "Signor Antonio, many times and oft..." and ending with ",,,I'll lend you thus much moneys'?" tells us about Antonio's treatment of him. Nobody twists Antonio's arm to make the bond a pound of flesh. It was made in a "merry jest". It is just business,
Does Shylock love his daughter. I would have to say yes. She betrays him when she runs off with his money and jewels with Lorenzo. Yet, he doesn't directly talk about her. It is too painful for him. That she callously gave away a ring that was given to Shylock by his dead wife Leah is like a knife in his heart.
It is interesting to note that Shylock only appears in a handful of scenes and except for Act II, scene 5 they all take place in public places. Would this proud man let the Christian world (his enemy) see how he really feels? I think not.
The closest he comes to showing his feelings is in his famous speech in Act III, scene 1 when he is taunted by Salerio and Salanio. This speech is not a plea for sympathy but a beautifully laid out argument justifying his revenge.
His being a Jew in a Chrstian world is the heart of Act IV, the trial scene. That the disguised Portia is able to trick Shylock with a loophole in the contract gives the court a chance for justice of their own.
In ordering Shylock to convert is thought by the Christians to be saving his soul. In their eyes they are saving him.
The next question is how good of a Christian will Shylock make?
In the play, Shylock's dramatic function is as the comic villain, and as such, is boxed into a role that emphasizes his negative character traits. So the aspects of his Jewishness and his point of view on money and possessions as a moneylender are, of necessity, cast by Shakespeare in a negative light. His position in the play, his function as the villain, has more of an impact on how his character is defined, since it necessitates the emphasis on the negative qualities associated with these.
For example, a pound of flesh in exchange for the loan made to Antonio relates to the ruthless idea of the Old Testament of "an eye for an eye" as an approach to justice/revenge. His position as a moneylender is emphasized in a negative way as well when he considers his daughter's elopement only in terms of the money and valuables she took with her.
Shakespeare, however, is not in the habit of creating two dimensional characters, even with his villains. And so it is in this play that we have one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches. Shylock, in Act III, scene i, speaks about his humanity in the lines that begin, "Hath not a Jew eyes?" With this speech, Shakespeare causes his audience to rethink the cliches they might be tempted to assign to Shylock based upon his behaviour in other moments in the play.
This speech, many would argue, serves as the antidote to the negative definition created by the rest of the play.
Actors have from the earliest times represented Shylock as a bad character "with red hair and a monstrous nose clamoring for the blood of Antonio with a fiendish delight" .
Shakespeare has presented the Jew in his play. Shakespeare , the Elizabethan , addicted to the thought, reason, sentiments and prejudices of his contemporaries, also felt like them a bitter hatred of the Jews, which was typical of the popular conception of what the Jew could be both in the Elizabethan age, and medieval times . Thus, while Shakespeare ,the Elizabethan , created, Shylock, the villain, insisting on his pound of flesh, Shakespeare, the artist, painted Shylock, the hero –“the depository of the vengeance of his race” – through his unconscious dramatic instinct.
He was, of course, an usurer, charging interest for the money because it gave him the only source of protection among the violently hostile Christen. As a Jew he nursed a real grievances against the Christen zealots who prosecuted his race while as a money-lender he hated Antonio not only for interfering with his professional activities by lending money gratis but also for insulting and abusing him personality, in privet and in public. His love of his ‘sacred nation’ may be offensive to the Christens. But it should be remembered that love of their race and preservation of racial peculiarities was to the Jews what love of country was to the other people, because the Jews had been exiled from their homeland for centuries together. “He has a soft place in his heart” are undercurrent of affection and love for his kith and kin though crushed over with malice and misanthropy begotten of injustice and ill-treatment. The constant apprehension of being burnt alive, plundered, banished, reviled and trampled upon might be supposed to sour the most for bearing nature. The desire of revenge is almost inseparable from the sense of wrong. To crown all , his own daughter has eloped with a Christian and has stolen “his jewels and a lot of money.”
Shylock might be a bad man but do not the circumstances in which he is placed, conspire to draw out some of the worst traits of his character – his malignity, vindictiveness and revenge. He is after all, human. He loves his daughter and his affection for her is none-the-less genuine in spite of her treachery and desertion rendered possible by the help and connivance of Christian. Even in the trial-scene he fondly cherishes the memory of his wife. He has a good word for Launcelot, his servant. He even wanted to be a friend of Antonio but received only insults for him.
It is no wonder , then that in the Trial-scene he appears like the very embodiment of vengeance, his miserliness even becoming subordinate to it. It is only then that Shylock becomes morally less and sympathetic to us, because he is making a deliberate attempt at taking the life of a Christian, though we are touched and thrilled by the pathos of his parting words :
“I pray you , give me leave to go from hence
I am not well .”
And, last of all , when the grand of old Jew leaves the stage crushed, broken , cheated and despoiled of all the things dear to his heart, we are almost persuaded to think that the poor man is more sinned against than sinning.
To what extent is Shylock defined? Given my sad part, dull, fifty-something, amateur Shaxberd fan, "I must to the learned"(ROM1.2.44), as the Q "strains me past the compass of my wits"ROM4.1.47). Shakespeareguru defines Shylock as a literary convention, comic villain. Is it so? The only explicit instance where Shylock is so nominated is by Solanio(MV2.8.4). In the court scene, Shylock's "If you deny it, let the danger light / Upon your charter and your city's freedom"(4.1.37-8) is a reiteration of Antonio's speech to Solanio(3.3.26-31). Shylock's "Some men..........when the bagpipe sings....." corresponds to Solanio's "Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time......Some.......laugh like parrots at a bagpiper....?(1.1.48-56). It "is my humour" to note that the Duke and Portia(as Doctor Balthasar) each address Shylock by name and by the word "Jew." This recalls Juliet's "What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, / Nor arm nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man"(ROM2.1.83-5), which in turn corresponds to "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?......"and so forth(3.1). Therefore, one might ask what is Judaism?