The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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How does Shylock's character change from the start to the end of The Merchant of Venice?

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The answer to this question, as with anything regarding drama, depends somewhat on the actor playing the role. On film we have seen, from the late 1970s forward, radically different portrayals of Shylock by Laurence Olivier, Warren Mitchell, and Al Pacino. Modern productions have correctly, in my view, emphasized Shylock's unfortunate position in being victimized by the bigotry aimed at him. Initially, he is embittered but still shows a degree of self-confidence that enables him to "bear with a patient shrug" the insults and outrages leveled at him. He knows that Antonio and the others are hypocrites and that their discrimination against him is unjustified. Within the context of the Renaissance world (and unfortunately more recent times as well), Shylock has no recourse but to seek retribution:

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

But this ends up Shylock's undoing. In emulating the Christians who, in their own hypocritical way, endorse vengeance as a legitimate recourse, he dooms himself.

When his daughter Jessica elopes, Shylock shows an emotional loss of control, understandably, which contrasts with his earlier self-assurance. In the courtroom scene, when he has been defeated, he is reduced by his adversaries into saying, resignedly, "I am content." Again, much of the finality of this statement, and how it represents the changes Shylock has undergone, depends on the actor playing him and the way he speaks that final line.

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How is Shylock portrayed at the start of The Merchant of Venice and how does he change by the end?

At the start of The Merchant of Venice Shylock is a successful money lender with a thriving business on the Rialto. He is wealthy, with a good house and daughter. He is clearly identified as a Jew whom the Christians judge harshly, in particular Antonio who cannot do enough to defame and denigrate Shylock.

At the end of the play, Shylock is a broken man. His desire for vengeance, no matter how justifiable, collapsed around him. The court rightly found against him for threatening the life of a citizen (a pound of flesh was always an absurdly extreme condition, which Antonio foolishly and arrogantly agreed to). His daughter has renounced him and their religion. She has stolen his wealth and his keepsakes. His means of livelihood are taken from him by the court as part of his judgement and he is forced, as was often the case, to become a Christian.

The lessons pointed out by Shylock's changes are several. Two of them are: (1) He was wrong to ignore God's injunction against taking vengence. (2) Even if Antonio was an arrogant fool, he was wrong to require a contract that might take his life.

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How does Shylock develop or change as the play progresses?

I am not sure Shylock changes that much - in a sense one of the main themes in the play is that of penitence, yet Shylock does not develop or change enough to show any contrition. Perfect contrition is necessary in christianity in order to recover love of God and forgiveness.

Shylock will not do so or offer mercy himself at the beginning. The question is why he refuses what seems to be a sensible request. Shylock admits that he does not like Antonio, saying at one point, "I hate him for he is a Christian" (I.iii.42). Also he says Antonio lends money out without charging interest (a christian charitable dictat) and brings down the interest rates .At the trial he says his reason for disliking Antonio is as inexplicable as the reason some people hate cats or gaping pigs or cannot stand the sound of bagpipes. Actually they both hate each other. Antonio spat at Shylock and treated him like a dog in the Rialto, a public area of commercial exchange. When asked,  Shylock tells what he will do with Antonio's flesh since, unlike cows or goats, it is useless. He says "To bait fish withal" (III.i.53). In the next famous speech, Shylock tells how Antonio has laughed at his losses and mocked his successes. He holds that Jews have learned to take revenge from the example set by Christians and views himself as the wronged party in the row and considers his actions to be justified vengeance

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