The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Is Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a tragic character or something else?

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Shylock is a tragic character, but he represents more than  that to various audiences.  For Shakespeare's audience, Shylock would have been close to the Jewish stereotype found in many of the works of the Elizabethan era (and previous British writings).  In Shakespeare's time, the Jew was often portrayed as a greedy villain whom writers used for humor's sake.  Shakespeare does attempt to go beyond presenting Shylock as the stereotype of his day by eliciting some sympathy from the audience for Shylock's horrible plight at the play's end.  However, before this point, the playwright makes Shylock look rather foolish.  When Shylock discovers that his only child has eloped with a Christian and, more importantly, with his jewels, he states,

"I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear . . ." (Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 87-89).

At this point, the audience laughs at Shylock's expense because he appears to be such a greedy, ornery old man that he would rather have his only child dead if he could regain his jewels.

Ironically, Shylock makes this statement right after his infamous "I Am a Jew" speech which powerfully criticizes the Christians' (and perhaps Elizabethan Christians') poor treatment of Jews.  Because of contrasts in Shylock's character such as this, it is not accurate to label him solely as one type of archetype.

Look at Act 4 to see how Shylock meets the qualifications of a tragic hero.  The audience does sympathize with him when he loses his possessions, his livelihood, and his faith.

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In what light do you see Shylock as a tragic character or a comic figure in The Merchant of Venice?

To Shakespeare's audience, Shylock would have been laughable as well as despicable.  In many ways he conformed to the stereotype of Jews current during that time, and I do not doubt they would have laughed when his daughter left him, laughed when he said "my ducats, my daughter," and perhaps laughed, too, when he was forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the trial. Enotes has some historical background on this issue that would be worth checking out.

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In what light do you see Shylock as a tragic character or a comic figure in The Merchant of Venice?

There is definitely a tragic element in the character of Shylock.  The rampant anti-semitism of the age provoked lines like "hath a Jew not eyes...If you prick us do we not bleed?" (3.1.59-70) but for me, Shylock revokes my sympathies when his daughter elopes and steals his money.  He rants, claiming that he wishes his daughter was "dead at my foot / Jewels in her ears! / Would she were hears'd at / My foot and my ducats in her coffin!"  (3.1.88-90).  In my opinion, this sort of outburst reinforces the stereotype of Jews as greedy and murderous.

As for comic element, sometimes Shylock is laughable in his efforts to keep his money and his daughter in check, but overall I see him as a tragic figure beset by the climate of his time and his overall personality shortcomings. 

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