The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Who is the protagonist in The Merchant of Venice? Why is Shylock portrayed negatively despite the discrimination he faces?

Quick answer:

Shylock is a victim of the society that he inhabits, and this can be seen in the way that he is treated by Antonio, who spurns him when Shylock's daughter elopes with Bassanio. However, Shylock has been so badly abused over years of discrimination and prejudice that he feels he has been pushed to the limit, and therefore takes his revenge on Antonio to extremes.

Expert Answers

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

This question actually echoes questions that have been asked about this play for the last few centuries. It is fascinating to consider how stagings of this play have moved from presenting Shylock as something of a Jewish caricature to viewing him as a victim of the Christian-dominated society that he...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

is a part of. What is so intrguing about the play is that it is never really clear cut about whether Shylock is, in the words of Lear, "more sinned against than sinning." On the one hand, Shylock is clearly very vindictive and takes his desire for revenge againstAntonio to extreme lengths, so fixated is he on having his "pound of flesh." However, on the other hand, he is a man who is scorned, treated terribly and forced to endure significant hardship in the society that he is a part of. Not only is he spat on by Antonio, he then has to suffer his daughter stealing his wealth and then eloping with a Christian, betraying her hereditary faith and also treating objects of great sentimental value with careless regard. Note how Tubal incites Shylock's rage by reporting that he heard Jessica exchanged a ring for a monkey: was my turquoise, I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

Shylock then can be depicted as a man who is not only kicked when he is down, but who is spurned and discriminated against during every single section of the play, culminating in his final shaming and disgrace when he is forced to convert to Christianity and see his wealth and possessions that he has worked so hard to accumulate go to his Christian son-in-law. This does seem to be extreme in terms of his punishment, and it could be argued that this treatment of Shylock reflects the anti-semitic prejudices of Shakespeare's day. It is important to remember that Christians historically have blamed Jews for killing Jesus, and the prejudice that Shylock experiences in this play is therefore perhaps representative of this. It adds further evidence to the argument that Shylock can be viewed as more of a victim than a villain, though throughout the play it seems that there is enough evidence to view both sides of this debate equally. Whilst Shylock is given perhaps the most eloquent words of the play, where he pleads for a shared humanity with his oppressors, in his famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech, at the same time this eloquence is used to mask and justify a brutal revenge that is sadistic in the extreme.

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

Shakespeare'sThe Merchant of Veniceis certainly a play characterized by ambivalence with, for one thing, the difficulty of interpreting in modern times the intent of Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock and the coexistence in Venice of Antonio and Shylock. Despite this acknowledged ambivalence, renowned Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom insists "The Merchant of Venice essentially is a romantic comedy," and Shylock is "a comic villain." As a villain, it is problematic, however, that Shylock would convert to Christianity and say that he is "content" to do so. Otherwise he is villainous: he charges exorbitant interest if he can; he is more upset about losing his money and jewels than about losing his daughter; he exacts a sadistic penalty from Antonio for failure to repay his loan. Shylock is, indeed, formidable when he faces the Duke of Venice and demands his bond:

I have possessed your Grace of what I purpose,And by our holy Sabbath have I swornTo have the due and forfeit of my bond.If you deny it, let the danger lightUpon your charter and your city's freedom!You'll ask me why I rather choose to haveA weight of carrion flesh than to receiveThree thousand ducats. I'll not answer that,But say it is my humor. Is it answered? (4.1.36-44)

With Shylock as the villain, the protagonist is, therefore, the heroic person who defeats this villain; namely, Portia. For, the play is truly Portia's as the romantic element centers around her with the caskets her father has left for her suitors set against her love for Bassanio and her refusal to have her will curbed, as well as in her clever disguise as a lawyer in order to defend Antonio in an superbly convincing and eloquent speech that defeats Shylock in the best known passage of the play as well as the statement of theme:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd;It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath. It is twice blest:It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomesThe throned monarch better than his crown. (4.1.186-192)

A final argument for Portia's being the protagonist and not Antonio is that Portia dominates the final act and again exhibits her cleverness and superiority in retaining the final word and the right to upbraid her husband.

Yet, Portia is flawed just as Antonio is flawed, underscoring again the ambivalence of this drama. For, they both fail to exhibit Christian charity at all times. Antonio hypocritically maligns Shylock for his profession which is also his own, and he refuses to show mercy to Shylock at the end; Portia is also unChristian in her remarks about her suitors, especially the Moroccan, to whom she bids "good riddance" along with all those of dark complexions. Like Antonio, she does not extend mercy to Shylock despite her having just argued for it to the court--"Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture,/To be so taken at any peril, Jew"(4.1.343-344).

Approved by eNotes Editorial