The Merchant of Venice Essays
by William Shakespeare

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Merchant of Venice Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Character Study of Shylock

Shylock is one of the most confusing characters in all of Shakespeare's plays. On the surface, he is a villain only concerned about money and revenge. Some critics, however, argue that Shakespeare takes this "stereotypical" Jew much further, making him a complex character whose sufferings at the hands of racists motivate his anger. While Shakespeare gives no definitive answer as to how Shylock should be viewed, he does make important points in support and in denial of this antagonist.

It should be noted prior to any analysis of Shylock that the idea of a villainous "Christianized Jew" may possibly stem from an incident involving the Elizabethan court in 1594. Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Christianized Jew who worked as the royal physician, was convicted of attempting to poison the Queen, despite questionable evidence. He was executed for his crime, all the time insisting that he loved the Queen as much as Jesus Christ himself. The Elizabethans found this statement humorous and the event in general interesting, prompting one acting troupe to revive Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta for several performances. It is widely believed that this incident may have provided the inspiration for Shylock.

Shylock first appears in the play in Act I, scene iii, when Bassanio attempts to borrow money from him in Antonio's name in order to pursue Portia. Through Shylock's aside in lines 37-47, we learn that, although Shylock has never met Antonio, he already hates him. The first reason is racial in nature—Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian. For this reason, Shylock will not associate with Antonio, Bassanio, or their friends beyond their business dealings:

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 (ll. 32-34).

This comment becomes ironic by the end of the play, as Shylock will have done all of what he says he will not. Shylock also makes a comment in this scene about the "hard dealings" of Christians, which teach them not to trust anyone. While this may be true of Antonio and Bassanio, it is also true of Shylock, who loans money at interest in order to make a profit. The racist part of Shylock's hatred makes him no different from the Italians, who hate and mistreat Shylock for his religious beliefs.
Antonio makes disparaging remarks to Shylock throughout the play, despite his compromising situation. In Act I, scene iii, Antonio compares Shylock to the devil, who can "cite Scripture for his purpose" (l. 94), and readily admits to calling Shylock a dog in the Rialto. Antonio not only lacks any remorse for his treatment of Shylock, but he even insults Shylock directly in this scene despite the fact that he is attempting to borrow money from him: "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too" (ll. 126-127). Although Antonio should not insult Shylock if he expects to borrow money from him, he does so anyway because of his racism and his disagreement with Shylock's business practices. Despite these comments, Antonio appears to relent at the end of the scene, saying that there is "much kindness in the Jew" and referring to Shylock as "gentle Jew." These terms, however, are condescending. Antonio equivocates kindness with Christianity: "The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind" (l. 174). This parallel also relates to the Christian mercy/pagan revenge concept later on in the play. Antonio's attitude and treatment of Shylock in this scene is characteristic of many characters in the play, and is one of the sources of Shylock's resentment of Antonio and his friends.

However, racist treatment is merely the surface of Shylock's dislike. During his aside in Act I, scene iii, Shylock mentions the deeper reason for his hatred of Antonio: "But more, for that in low simplicity/He lends out money gratis and brings down/The rate of usance here with us in Venice" (ll. 89-41). Although Shylock's racism does affect his...

(The entire section is 5,316 words.)