The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Describe the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

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There is no understanding Shylock in the Merchant of Venice without knowing something of the historical position of Jews in Europe and England. In short, Jews were generally hated. They were relegated to specific town sectors for living quarters. During the various Crusades, knights would stop along their way and slay Jews on their journey to Jerusalem. Jews were forbidden to work at most jobs, leaving the role of money lender as one of their only non-menial options. Many countries had expelled Jews from their borders, including England.

Jews were forbidden in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1594, Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician, who was in England under special dispensation, had been tried for attempting to poison the Queen. Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice between 1596 and 1598, two to four years after the Lopez trial.

Shylock is a man for whom all these historical factors are the lifeblood of his being. He is a man hated and despised by country, community and individual citizens. His daughter, who shares the same ethnic history, should respect and honor him yet she does not; she puts her heart above her head and elopes with a Christian. Not only that, but she insults her father, perhaps symbolically insulting the history he has lived through, by stealing his money and a ring that belonged to his wife, granted, his wife was wife and mother.

Shylock's qualities are revealed through his words and actions and through how people treat and interact with him. He speaks of what he hates. He says his daughter will be damned for her theft, whether he means that as a religious truth or as a personal denunciation isn't clear. He makes impossible lending bonds with real hope that he will be able to carry out the extraordinary terms of a pound of flesh taken from any part of the body he wishes. He is publicly humiliated and insulted; he is disparaged; he is mocked. Yet he continues to do business and care for his daughter. He continues to make purchases in the market place. He continues to try to make a decent life for her and himself.

These things tell us that Shylock has been emotionally and psychologically battered but that he maintains his human dignity and self respect in the face of the cruel inhumanity of hatred he receives. He shows that he has courage and fortitude; most would rather go hide in the country as a farmer than receive cruel jaunts and jeers and more vicious insults daily in town. His reactions to the loss of his wife's ring and his daughter's abandonment show he has a true capacity for deep love, regardless of the terms between him and Antonio.

But Shylock has also yielded to bitterness and anger, which have made him hateful. He is so hateful, in fact, that he is willing to abandon one of the highest precepts of his God, which is to reject vengeance because God says that vengeance belongs to Him only. So Shylock is also vengeful, and he dishonors his God in just the same way that Jessica dishonors him.

Shylock is not always very well understood by scholars and students of Shakespeare. It is entirely possible that Shylock is meant by Shakespeare to demonstrate the truth that Christians have failed their religion and God just as surely as Shylock, who yields to hatred and vengeance, has failed his religion and God.

For more on the history, see Historical Background. For more about Merchant of Venice and Shylock, see The Literature Network.

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Here are some ideas for elements to include in your character sketch of Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice:

1) His occupation.

2) His religion

3) His financial status

4) His motivation for refusing a reasonable request to pay back a due debt.

5) His feelings about Antonio

6) His inability to be merciful

7) His attitude towards those who follow a different religious journey to him.

8) His worries about the undercutting of the profits in the moneylending business in the city

9) His feelings about Antonio's treatment of him in public

10) His defence about following the example of Christians in retribution

Finish by examining how far the character of Shylock as a Jew is a stereotype.

This link will help you 'flesh out' your sketch:

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What is the character sketch of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice?

Shylock is presented to us as a devious, vengeful man, embittered by years of anti-Semitic abuse and persecution to the point where he's become hell-bent on avenging himself against Christians. He claims he only wants equality, to be treated the same way as Christians. But in actual fact, what he really wants is the same kind of right to avenge himself on Christians as they have in relation to Jews.

Shylock is stubborn and inflexible, insisting that his bloody bond be carried out to the absolute letter. Such an attitude is entirely in keeping with the prevailing anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as narrowly legalistic in the practice of their religion, privileging law above spirit. In terms of his personality, Shylock's refusal to yield an inch on the terms of his bargain makes him look vindictive and spiteful. No longer is his bond concerned with justice, but rather with revenge, and that's a whole different thing altogether.

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