Is Shylock A Villain Or A Victim

Would you say Shylock is a victim or a villain in The Merchant of Venice?

Shylock is both a villain and a victim in The Merchant of Venice. He is a villain in that he insists on the fulfillment of a vindictive bargain that will result in someone’s death, yet he is also a victim in that he’s the object of racial prejudice, bigotry, and hatred.

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Shylock is a complex character, one of many in Shakespeare’s plays. One cursory glance at Shakespeare’s oeuvre tells us that there are very few characters who are absolutely wicked or as pure as the driven snow. And this remarkable talent for complex characterization is just one of the many things...

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Shylock is a complex character, one of many in Shakespeare’s plays. One cursory glance at Shakespeare’s oeuvre tells us that there are very few characters who are absolutely wicked or as pure as the driven snow. And this remarkable talent for complex characterization is just one of the many things that makes Shakespeare the world’s greatest dramatist.

In truth, Shylock is neither completely villain nor completely villain, but a combination of both. Shylock is very much the villain of the piece, and is intended to be so, and yet he still manages to earn the audience’s sympathy. This is because he is a daily victim of anti-Semitism. As a Jew in a Christian city, Shylock is routinely subject to all manner of insults, humiliations, and legal disabilities. Inevitably, this makes him feel bitter and restful towards Christians.

Making such a vindictive bargain, according to which Antonio must forfeit a pound of flesh if he cannot pay Shylock back the money he borrowed from him, is Shylock’s way of getting back at society for a lifetime of mistreatment. In fact, one could argue that this is the only way that Shylock can gain his revenge on all those so-called Christians who’ve wronged him over the years.

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The two are not mutually exclusive. Just because someone is a victim does not make the person morally good. Villains can be victims too.

What makes Shylock an interesting character is that he has a complex nature. In certain ways, he is a stereotypical evil Jew of the literature of Shakespeare's period, racism and antisemitism being far more acceptable then than now. On the other hand, he is loyal to his religion and has been badly mistreated by Christians. His desire for revenge may seem vindictive, but it responds to a lifetime of being treated as almost subhuman. He is also a widower who greatly prizes the ring given him by his dead wife, Leah. Thus not only is he discriminated against by Christians but he has also suffered a personal tragedy and been left to raise his daughter as a single father.

His relationship with is daughter is fraught. She wants to be part of wealthy gentile society and appears quite materialistic. Although Shylock appears a harsh disciplinarian, one can sympathize with him as a single father trying to make sure his daughter does not end up being courted simply for her money.

While he is obsessed with money, his wealth is his only security and defense in a world that despises and mistreats Jews. He is not a pleasant person and is vindictive and obsessed with money, but his character is very much formed by his situation as a victim.

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As your question suggest, he's both.

He's disgracefully treated by the Christians: they mock his religion, refuse to trade with him, spit on him in the street, and - even in the trial scene - mock him and taunt him to his face. Throughout the play he's referred to as "Jew" rather than "Shylock", and you can see why he longs to "feed fat" his grudge against the Christians.

He is devastated when his daughter leaves him, without any warning, and without any evidence of negative behaviour towards her from him (she says "this house is hell", though the scene doesn't make it clear exactly why she feels like that). Shylock is, I think Shakespeare makes it very clear, a victim.

He is also a villain. He deliberately opts for the "pound of flesh" because he has a grudge against Antonio, and, when the chance comes to get his revenge, he behaves in an extremely undignified and certainly unmerciful way. He gloats in front of Antonio, even attending the gaoler who arrest him, and openly proclaims his right to the flesh, against any sense of common humanity, in a public court. He also values his money extremely highly - not negative in itself - but, when he seems to value his ducats more than his daugther, you have to be suspicious. He's undoubtedly also a villain.

You can make a case either way. For me, I'd argue that he's both at once: though like the Wittgenstein duck/rabbit, at any one moment he seems one or the other.

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Shylock has become one of William Shakespeare’s most enduring and most hotly debated characters, precisely because his portrayal includes elements of both a victim and a villain. Jews were often the target of legal and other forms of discrimination in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare definitely plays up stereotypes of the miserly usurer. Nevertheless, he makes Shylock sympathetic in numerous ways. The author blurs the English aspects of anti-Semitism by locating the play in Italy. However, audiences would have been fully aware of the restrictions that applied to Jewish religious practice.

Shylock worries extensively about being cheated and determines to exact a cruel punishment on his debtors. In his relentless pursuit of Antonio, he is decidedly villainous. Yet he also uses the legal system in his efforts to obtain a favorable verdict, rather than acting as a vigilante and physically harming Antonio. While his fee and his demands are extreme, he is technically law-abiding, and the disguised Portia uses a legal, not a moral, technicality to get his claim dismissed. Shylock is shown as a victim of society within his own family through the unpleasant, ungrateful character of his daughter, Jessica. Despite her selfishness and disrespect for her father and her own religious heritage, Shylock finally accepts her and her marriage.

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