The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Extended Character Analysis

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a wealthy Jewish moneylender from Venice and Jessica's father. He lends Antonio and Bassanio the 3,000 ducats that Bassanio needs to pursue Portia. However, Shylock stipulates that if Antonio defaults on the loan, he will owe Shylock a pound of his flesh. This contract spurs the central plot of the play. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock attempts to extract his pound of flesh. However, thanks to Portia’s intervention, Antonio is saved and Shylock is forced to relinquish half of his fortune. He is also forced to convert to Christianity. Shylock is left humiliated after being robbed of his money, his faith, and his dignity. Shylock is one of William Shakespeare’s most controversial characters, because he is undeniably based on anti-Semitic stereotypes. However, he is also an eloquent speaker with genuine motivations for his actions.

Central to Shylock’s character is the historical role of Jewish people in 17th-century Europe. Jews were expelled from Britain in 1290 CE, so Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would likely never have encountered an openly Jewish person. In 17th-century Venice, moneylending was one of the few professions available to Jewish people. Christians viewed charging interest as sinful and giving out interest-free loans is unprofitable. So, once Jewish people filled this financial niche and made profitable loans, Christians began to characterize them as materialistic and greedy. This view is frequently espoused by Antonio, who also undermines Shylock’s business by giving interest-free loans. These harmful stereotypes further fueled the already rampant discrimination against Jewish people.

Shylock’s character and historical context are complex. Though the play casts him as the villain, he can also be interpreted in terms of different roles. By reading Shylock as a straightforward villain, he becomes an anti-Semitic caricature. That he charges interest on his loans at all would have already made him immoral in the eyes of most Elizabethan Christians. On top of that, however, Shylock is shown to be materialistic, a negative stereotype that Elizabethans wrongly associated with Jews. After Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes and steals a chest full of ducats and expensive items, Shylock seems more concerned with the loss of his money than with his daughter. He goes so far as to wish she were dead at his feet if it meant that his ducats were decorating her corpse.

Shylock is also frequently associated with the “devil.” Both Jessica and Launcelot compare Shylock’s house to “hell.” For Shakespeare’s predominantly Christian audience, the association of a Jewish character with the devil would have been a familiar trope. Furthermore, Shylock’s antagonistic pursuit of revenge against the martyr-like Antonio evokes the persecution of Jesus Christ. By this reading, Shylock’s refusal to show Antonio mercy is indicative of his lack of Christian grace. By this deeply anti-Semitic reading, the Christian characters attempt to save Shylock’s soul by forcing him to convert to Christianity.

However, despite being the antagonist of the play, Shylock can also be read in a more sympathetic light. He is given opportunities to speak eloquently about the abuse he has experienced at the hands of the Christian characters. In his “hath not a jew eyes?” speech in act III, scene I, Shylock argues that Jewish people deserve respect since they are just as human as Christians. Though the revenge he plots against Antonio is cruel and gruesome, it is not entirely unjustified. Even Antonio acknowledges that he has frequently abused Shylock and undermined his business.

In 16th-century Venice, Jewish people had few economic opportunities. As Shylock claims at the end of the trial, taking away his wealth is akin to killing him. So, even if Shylock is sometimes materially fixated, it is not without reason. However, his alleged greed is subverted on several occasions, such as when he finds out that Jessica sold the turquoise ring. Rather than lamenting its loss in terms of monetary value, he reflects on the sentimental value it held: it was a gift from his late wife, Leah. This lament humanizes Shylock and implies that he and Leah had a loving relationship. Shylock’s caring about more than material wealth is also evident when he turns down the 6,000 ducats Bassanio offers him during the trial. If Shylock only desired money, so many ducats would have been a welcome profit. However, his refusal to accept anything other than his pound of flesh suggests that Shylock is operating on principle and emotion.

Shylock’s principles are perspicuous in his speeches. He frequently cites scripture and, more so than any of the Christians, adheres to his faith. Shylock is incredulous after hearing Bassanio and Gratiano claim that they would sacrifice their wives for Antonio. This reaction, combined with his anguish over Jessica’s selling of Leah’s ring, suggests that he was a loving and honorable husband. Shylock also refuses to eat with the Christians since his faith bars him from eating unkosher foods. The Christians use their faith to assert superiority over others. Shylock adheres to his religious principles in spite of adversity. This makes his forced conversion all the more obscene, as a conversion without conviction is meaningless. Though superficially “merciful,” the Christians actually rob Shylock of the foundation of his morality and identity.

Of additional note is that Shylock fits the tragic hero archetype. He begins the play as a wealthy and prominent moneylender who is secure in his faith. However, after years of suffering abuses from Christians, his thoughts turn to revenge, thereby setting his downfall into motion. In his fervor to see Antonio answer for his abuse, Shylock becomes cruel and single-minded. As a result, he loses everything: his wealth, his dignity, and his faith. Shylock leaves the court a defeated man, humbled by both injustice and his own misguided pursuit of revenge.

The controversies surrounding Shylock have no simple resolution. His views on human nature are profound and eloquent. His motivations are based on rectifying the injustice inflicted on his people by Christians. He is principled and adheres to his faith despite the social repercussions. However, he also embodies harmful anti-Semitic stereotypes, and his defeat in the trial is treated as a triumph for the Christian protagonists. Ultimately, to discredit either reading is to miss what makes Shylock fascinating: he represents a deeply flawed portrayal of a very human character.

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