The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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A Character Study of Shylock

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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...

(This entire section contains 1782 words.)

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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 impression of Antonio, it is clear that Shylock is more concerned with Antonio's effect on his business. This is consistent with his reaction to events later on in the play. Shylock's resentment of Antonio's business dealings and religion lead him to thoughts of revenge in this scene, before the means of revenge have even appeared. While it is unclear if Shylock realistically hopes to gain a pound of Antonio's flesh (He knows that Antonio has had financial problems recently, but does not know the depth of the situation), he clearly intends revenge in this scene mainly for the damage Antonio has done to Shylock's business.

Shylock's prejudices and the results of the treatment he has received through his dealings with Antonio and his friends combine to motivate Shylock's revenge in Act III. After lamenting the misfortunes of Antonio, who has apparently lost all of his ships, Salerio and Solanio tease and insult Shylock over the loss of Jessica and his ducats, having assisted the elopement in Act II. These insults lead to one of the more famous of Shakespeare's speeches, in which Shylock justifies his reasons for wanting revenge against Antonio:

He hath disgraced me and hind'red me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation...—and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?... if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?...And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (ll. 47-58).

In this speech, Shylock reminds Salerio and Solanio (and the audience as well) that he is human, just as Antonio is. While Shylock cannot and does not justify his hatred of Antonio, he correctly points out in this passage that there is no reason for Antonio's ill treatment of Shylock, either. This speech gives Shylock's character a depth not traditionally associated with stock villains, and makes his character much more complex.

The courtroom scene of Act IV, scene i, crystallizes all of the significant aspects of Shylock's character as well as the treatment he receives. Prior to Shylock's entrance, the duke describes Shylock as "a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,/Uncapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy" (ll. 3-6). This is a reminder of the Christian mercy/pagan revenge dichotomy that begins in Act I, scene iii. The duke's racism in this statement is reflected in the derogatory comments of Antonio and Gratiano later in the scene. Once Shylock enters, the duke does make one last attempt to reason with him by expecting Shylock to show mercy. As the duke has previously pointed out, however, Shylock does indeed lack any sense of mercy for Antonio, and insists on his bond. He cannot give any reason for this insistence, save that he does not like Antonio, and they have a contract. While this is seen as cruel, Shylock has already pointed out that no one in the play has justified ill treatment of him, and that their dislike is the only motivation for it.

The concept of Christian mercy becomes paramount as Portia arrives to judge the case. Just prior to Portia's arrival, the duke asks Shylock how he expects to receive mercy from others (and primarily God) if he does not show mercy, and Shylock's reply is simple: "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" (l. 89). Shylock's response to why he will not show mercy is that he is following the law by abiding with the terms of the contract, which means that he has broken no rules. What Shylock does not account for, however, is the fact that while he might not be breaking any laws by expecting the fulfillment of the bond, he may break other laws or rules later, and as a result may need mercy from God or someone else. Shylock does not think ahead to a time when he may make a mistake—he is only concerned with his rights at this particular moment. It is this error that makes Shylock reject Portia's plea for mercy and demand "the penalty and forfeit" of the bond, not realizing that the penalty and forfeit will be his own.

Shylock's demand that the bond be followed word for word is what brings about his downfall. The language of the bond does not provide for either blood or more or less than one pound of flesh, a fact that Shylock does not take into account but merely assumes. Because of his insistence of the exact language of the contract, he places himself in the untenable position of having to extract the exact pound of flesh without taking blood or risk losing his life. When Shylock attempts to take Bassanio's money and be "merciful," Portia reminds him that he will not receive anything but the penalty and forfeit of the bond that he has demanded. The penalty, of course, is the law which forces Shylock to give up his entire fortune and life to the state of Venice for having sought the death of a Venetian citizen. The only thing that prevents this is the Christian mercy of the duke and Antonio, which they "grant" by allowing Shylock to live and keep half of his goods if he becomes Christian and if he wills all of his possessions to Lorenzo at his death. While this decision is merciful in that Shylock will live and keep at least some of his money, it is rather unmerciful as well. Shylock must now part with the two things that mean the most to him, his money and his religion, which were the two things that began his hatred of Antonio in the first place.

Some critics have suggested that Shylock's defeat in Act IV, scene i, makes this play a tragedy. This seems to be corroborated by Jessica's anger and depression in Act V. However, the light mood at the end of the play does not suggest that we should understand Shylock to be a tragic hero. The other couples resolve their problems, Antonio discovers that all of his ships have come to port, and it appears that everyone except Shylock will live happily ever after. This seems to contradict the idea of this play as a tragedy. However, dismissing the character of Shylock as a clown and buffoon that lacks depth and development appears to contradict the play as well. Despite his nefarious bond and his lack of mercy, the character of Shylock possesses a great deal of depth and motivation, making him one of Shakespeare's most complicated and problematic characters.

Analysis of Act IV, Scene i

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Act IV, scene i of The Merchant of Venice not only provides the climax of the play but also encapsulates all of its major themes. In this scene, the concepts of racism and justice combine to create the play's final results and to reinforce the points made through previous scenes.

Racism is apparent in the scene from its inception. The duke, who is in pretrial conversation with Antonio, calls Shylock "a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,/Uncapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy" (ll. 4-6). Shylock's inhumanity stems from his religion, and the implication throughout the scene is that, if Shylock were Christian, he would be more "human." This idea is continued by Antonio when he begs everyone to stop pleading with Shylock:

I pray you think you question with the Jew. You may as well go stand upon the beach And bid the main flood bate his usual height; You may as well use question with the wolf, Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb You may as well do anything most hard As seek to soften that—that which what's harder?— His Jewish heart (ll. 70-80).

Through the wave and wolf metaphors, Antonio clearly depicts Shylock as something less than human because of his "Jewish heart," and renders him incapable of pity or understanding.

The character who is most vociferous in his racism against Shylock is Gratiano. Because of his anger and resentment at Shylock's lack of mercy, Gratiano hurls several insults at Shylock, ranging from "harsh Jew" to "inexecrable dog." He also extends Antonio's comparison between Shylock and a wolf: "Thy currish spirit/Govern'd a wolf…for thy desires/Are wolvish, bloody, starv'd, and ravenous" (ll.133-138). Because of his anger and racism, Gratiano is the only person in the courtroom who urges both the duke and Antonio to have Shylock put to death immediately once the scene is resolved.

It should be noted here that although it is never specifically mentioned in Act IV, scene i, Shylock has racist opinions as well. We know from Act I, scene iii, that from his first entrance into the play, Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, a point which helps to motivate Shylock to revenge. Mentioning this in court would not be advantageous to Shylock in his suit, which is the reason that he never expresses his racist opinions (save the one about Christian husbands), but those opinions matter very much in the scene.

Another theme that dominates Act IV, scene i is mercy and justice. Shylock's reason for claiming his pound of flesh is that he demands the justice that should be provided to him through the bond. When the duke asks Shylock how he can ever expect to have mercy if he does not give it, Shylock responds that he does not need mercy because he has justice on his side: "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" (l. 89). In this scene, Shylock demonstrates the view that justice and mercy are at odds with each other. For Shylock, having mercy means that he relinquishes justice, which he is not willing to do. This separation is marked as pagan; Shylock believes this because he is Jewish and not Christian. The Christian characters in the scene, however, believe that justice and mercy are not separate but must be linked, as evidenced by Portia's speech on the quality of mercy.

When Shylock asks Portia why he must be merciful, Portia replies that mercy cannot be compelled because of its divine nature and its greatness. This nature enjoins justice and mercy, just as it links the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it (ll. 184-185). In lines 186-190, Portia explains that not only does mercy have a divine nature, but it is also what makes monarchs (such as the duke) great. This happens, Portia explains, because:

It is an attribute to God himself, And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice (ll. 193-195).

In the Christian perspective represented by Portia, mercy is not only a part of justice, but it is its main aspect because God shows mercy in His justice. Justice without mercy, then, becomes tyranny because it goes against divine nature. Portia makes a final point about mercy at the end of her speech:

Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That in the course of justice none of us Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea (ll. 195-201).

In this section of the speech, Portia reminds Shylock that no one deserves salvation, and as such would never receive it without God's mercy. Because we hope and expect to receive mercy, then, we should render it to others. Unfortunately for Shylock, he refuses to accede to these arguments, and continues to demand "justice."

When Portia sees that her warning to Shylock will go unheeded, she proceeds to provide the interpretation of justice to everyone in the courtroom, whether or not they agree with it. Portia awards the consequences of the deed to Shylock, despite Bassanio's plea to "do a little wrong" in overturning Venetian law. Portia does not do this because it will provide a dangerous precedent for other legal proceedings, which may result in unjust judgments later. However, when Shylock attempts to take his pound of flesh, Portia informs him that the bond makes no provision for blood or for mistakes in measurement. If Shylock takes blood (which he must), or either too little or too much flesh, he will die because of the terms of Venetian law. Portia also informs Shylock that he has violated Venetian law by seeking the life of a citizen, and Shylock's life, lands, and goods are now forfeit to the state and to the victim Antonio. This ironic situation occurs because Shylock demands the letter of the law without the mercy that should accompany it, and his deeds are now "upon his head," as he wished them to be earlier in the scene.

Although the duke and Antonio can now take vengeance for Shylock's malicious attempt to take Antonio's life without giving mercy, the concerns of Christianity mitigate their actions. Upon hearing Portia's judgment that Shylock's life and goods are at the mercy of the state, the duke takes a much different tack than Shylock:

That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it. For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's; The other half comes to the general state, Which humbleness may drive unto a fine (ll. 366-370).

The duke pardons Shylock even though Shylock has not asked for his mercy because of the duke has learned Portia's lesson about the greatness of mercy. The duke also does not take half of Shylock's property out of mercy (although Shylock does not interpret it as such at the time). Antonio, however, does not render mercy to Shylock, but instead to his daughter Jessica and her husband Lorenzo. Instead of keeping his half of Shylock's property, he gives it to Lorenzo. He also asks the court to make Shylock convert to Christianity and to will his property at the end of his life to Lorenzo. Antonio, then, does punish Shylock for his paganism and malicious actions, but does so in a way that assists Jessica and Lorenzo and furthers the Christian theme of the play.

Portia's Boxes: Love in The Merchant of Venice

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The sentimental storylines in The Merchant of Venice often get lost amid the play's more prominent themes. Although the idea of love appears only through the play's subplots, Shakespeare does make the theme prevalent enough to warrant attention. The play demonstrates that love exists in many forms, and is selfless and not self-serving. It also clarifies the importance of romantic vows and the nature of the marital relationship.

The first idea of love that is presented in the play is that it comes in many forms. Antonio demonstrates his love for his kinsman Bassanio throughout their relationship and even before the action of the play begins. From Bassanio's exposition in Act I, scene i, it is clear that Antonio has often assisted Bassanio in the past, and Bassanio owes Antonio a great deal of money, which he has not been asked to repay. Antonio does this because he loves Bassanio and is willing to sacrifice his fortune for his kinsman. It is this love that motivates Antonio to enter into the agreement with Shylock that will jeopardize his life:

Give me your hand, Bassanio. Fare you well! Grieve not that I am fall'n too this for you; Repent but you that you shall lose your friend, And he repents not that he pays your debt (ll. 263-277).

Antonio is willing and ready to sacrifice everything that he has, including his life, for the benefit of Bassanio. Bassanio's love is equally strong—he immediately responds with a desire to sacrifice everything that he has, including his love Portia, to save Antonio. This deep love between friends was seen by the Elizabethans as a precursor to romantic love. If a man could demonstrate love for his friends, then he was capable of maintaining love for a woman.

Romantic love also appears in the Jessica/Lorenzo and Portia/Bassanio subplots. While the relationship between Jessica and Lorenzo has already been established by the beginning of the play, we know that their love is strong enough to overcome the racism that both would be taught as members of different ethnic and religious groups. Their love is also strong enough to cope with the secrecy that accompanies the relationship until the elopement. Jessica sacrifices not only her father's love but her religion as well in order to marry Lorenzo:

Alack, what heinous sin it is in me To be ashamed to be my father's child. But though I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, If thou but keep promise, I shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy loving wife (ll. 16-21).

While Jessica shows dislike for her father's actions in this speech, she also clearly states that the situation has been extremely difficult, and that she is determined to be with her lover. Jessica's love also helps her to overcome the embarrassment of dressing as a boy in Act II, scene vi: "I am much ashamed of my exchange./But love is blind, and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit" (ll. 35-37). Love and marriage, however, do not come without problems for Jessica and Lorenzo, who fight at the beginning of Act V, scene i. This indicates that marriage is not necessarily "happily ever after," and spouses will have disagreements and problems once they have found the way to each other.

Portia and Bassanio exemplify the idea that there are obstacles to romantic relationships both before and after the wedding, but love will find a way to overcome these problems. The first issue that Portia and Bassanio must overcome in the progression of their romantic relationship is the problem of the caskets. The caskets symbolize different views about love, and Bassanio must demonstrate his understanding of the true nature of love in order to win Portia. The gold casket bears the inscription "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." In choosing this casket, Morocco confuses desire with love. Love requires understanding of one's partner, while desire merely stems from attraction to surface appearance. Desire also leads to death, because when one only caters to their wants, they will fight with others over them, causing war and destruction. This is the reason for the picture of death in the gold casket. Bassanio, however, realizes that "[t]he world is still deceived with ornament" and rejects gold because he refuses to mistake appearance for reality (l. 74). Bassanio must then avoid the trap of the silver box, which promises that "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The mistake with this casket is that people in love often believe that they deserve more than they actually do and should, therefore, be rewarded. Such people do not try to understand the person they claim to love because they become complacent in the relationship after they have been rewarded with the person's presence. This foolish notion of love is the reason why Aragon finds the portrait of the blinking idiot in the silver casket instead of Portia's picture. Both the gold and silver caskets are wrong because they promise rewards for love, whether it is in the form of fulfilling desires or "just deserts." People who enter into love expecting a reward do not understand love's true nature, which is to give instead of receive.

Bassanio chooses the lead box, engraved with the warning "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath," because he refuses to fall for the promises of the glittering gold and silver boxes. In his speech in Act II, scene ii, Bassanio rejects gold and silver after comparing them to the false covers of law and religion (foreshadowing the issues in Act IV, scene i), which often masks evil in the pretty package of fancy language. He suspects the gold and silver caskets of doing this with their engraved statements. He chooses lead instead (with a few hints from Portia) because it clarifies rather than hides:

But thou, thou meagre lead Which threaten'st rather than doth promise aught, Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence; And here choose I. Joy be the consequence! (ll. 104-107).

Bassanio is then rewarded for his knowledge that love must be willing to sacrifice—a lesson he has learned from Antonio, who has sacrificed everything for him.

In Act IV, scene i, however, it appears that Bassanio has learned the idea of love as sacrifice a bit too well, as has his friend Gratiano. When Antonio says his farewell to Bassanio, Bassanio replies that he would sacrifice everything that he has in order to save Antonio, just as Antonio has done for him:

Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself; But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life. I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you (ll. 280-85).

Bassanio demonstrates here that although Portia means a great deal to him, Antonio is still more important. Gratiano repeats this sentiment as well, even going so far as to wish his wife Nerissa dead so that she can intercede with the powers of heaven on Antonio's behalf. These comments even draw the attention of Shylock, who wishes that his daughter had not married a Christian if Christian husbands all have this attitude about their wives. Unfortunately for Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia and Nerissa are there to hear their comments, prompting them to reply that their wives would not be happy with either of them and to design a form of punishment for their husbands.

Portia and Nerissa decide to teach their husbands a lesson on the importance of marital vows and love by taking the rings. Bassanio and Gratiano originally promise to keep the rings throughout their lifetimes as a symbol of their devotion to their wives, but they hesitantly sacrifice them in order to pay the "judge" and the "clerk" for saving Antonio. Once again, Bassanio and Gratiano have placed their friend above their wives by abandoning their oaths and giving up their rings, which Portia criticizes in Act V:

If you had known the virtue of the ring, Or half her worthiness that gave the ring, Or your own honor to contain the ring, You would not have then parted with the ring (ll. 199-202).

Portia and Nerissa then tease their husbands by threatening to sleep only with the judge and the clerk. Both wives eventually forgive their husbands and return the rings because both Bassanio and Gratiano have learned to value their wives and their oaths, thus resolving the problems that have occurred even after both couples have made their marriage vows.

The Merchant of Venice: A Directoral Approach

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In preparing for a production of The Merchant of Venice the director is faced with several problems. Among the choices which are basic to picking a directoral approach are deciding what the play is about (the main theme), and how to enhance that choice through the physical setting. A key to both of these decisions is found in the definition of the character of Shylock.

The easiest, or readiest, interpretation of Shylock is that which paints him as a cantakerous, miserly old man. Filling Shylock’s role in this way we immediately set up a good/evil split between him and the other characters which allows the play to be produced as a simple love story with a particularly strong antagonist. Thus, the play might be about the victory of love over greed and revenge. But, such an interpretation is overly simple and leaves Shylock short of his due.

There seems little doubt that while this character of Shylock fills an antagonist's role he is by far the most completely drawn, most complicated, and most interesting character in the play. Evidence of this is the fact that the role is always filled by the star of the production. Basically, the other characters are all fitted to the classical Amarati mold and are in pursuit of only love for fulfillment. Brassiano must go to the length of getting a large favor from a friend so that he might follow his heart; likewise his friend Gratiano seeks his fortune in love by sharing Brassiano’s adventure; Lorenzo is driven to "stealing" his love away from her father. The women are all the picture of temperance, beauty, and duty, with Portia, perhaps, showing a bit more depth through her wisdom (a trait not always bestowed upon the ladies). But, it is Shylock and Shylock alone who is torn emotionally in a multiplicity of directions, including the hardship of being a member of a hated religious community. Here is a man who is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't: he will be the butt of jokes and slurs which are readily hinged on both his successes and his failures. Here is a character who is successful in the vital businesses of the community and is condemned for non-conforming religious beliefs. And, here is a man who loses not only his only daughter but much of his worldly riches which she steals from him.

Certainly, then, the director's production choices hinge on his decisions about Shylock. Shakespeare would not have taken the time to make him so interesting had the play not been about him. It is not usual to make the villain more human than the hero.

Perhaps, then, the play is about a man's struggle to share love in a hostile world. Could it not be that Shylock makes his bond with Antonio in good faith but only resorts to revengeful behaviour upon the loss of his daughter which is compounded by the fact that everyone else thinks this loss a wonderful thing? The director taking these conclusions to be true must create his scenes in such a way as to show that Shylock is fighting heavy currents in all his activities. All those scenes which involve him should be played on the stage in such a way that he is outnumbered and physically not in control; they should be arranged so that he attains focus through being overbalanced by his opponents and constantly being on lower ground.

Which brings us to the set. The play takes place in two places, Venice and Belmont. Venice is primarily a place which connotes activity, business, and typical urban discordant feelings. Belmont is the setting for leisure, ladies, and affairs of the heart. Or, Venice is "coarse” while Belmont is "tender." Thus, a single set production must be able to express these contrasting places through differences in plane and visual texture. If Shylock is to be presented as oppressed, then his lodgings or environs should be placed in the stage left area, it being the weakest visually, and should be juxtaposed by a Belmont area on stage right that is visually more pleasant (color, line, etc.) and on a higher level (the use of steps and platforms). This type of a configuration will keep Shylock visually lower, or "beneath" his mentors, and we can set up his struggle to get out from under their ridicule.

The director should temper his knowledge of the situation of Elizabethan Jews with modern day understanding of people's differences through a production which emphasizes the human needs being dealt with rather than opposing dogmas. While Shylock's adversaries think they are doing him a favor by ordering him to become a Christian can we not bring out the misconceptions of their ways as well as his? Can they not be attempting to share love in a hostile world as well? This can be achieved through a thorough effort to acknowledge Shylock's humanity and a clear picture of the total situation.




The Merchant of Venice