The Merchant of Venice: Is Shylock Villain Or Victim?

This play is a comedy, meaning that no one dies, and that the “good guys” always win and that Justice is done to the “bad guys.” Like all comedies there is a villain. You could describe a villain as: nasty, a law breaker, someone who kills people, greedy and vengeful, evil and he/she usually gets caught in the end and is punished. This is what I would say a typical villain is, although it is very stereotypical. Shylock is evil and vengeful, but he does not step outside the law. When he is ready to dice up Antonio, he is “allowed” to do this due to the bond he made.

The audience knows that Shylock is a Jew, but they do not know his qualities, what he is like as an actual human. So far, the audience have just typecast him as another Jew. The modern audience would not care what race he is, or what name he calls God. Anyway, believe it or not, Shylock does have good qualities. He is an industrious man meaning he works hard for his money. He is an extremely devout Jew. He can say any quote from the Jewish Bible. He often quotes out of the Bible when he talks, or he refers to parts of the Bible when trying to express something. He adored his wife, Leah, who passed away before the play starts. You really see his devotion to her, when he talks about the ring she gave him before they were married. Shylock said he would not give it up for “a wilderness of monkeys”. This meaning that he would not give it up for all the riches of the world. This really shows that he is not all materialistic and does have a heart. This heart is quickly broken when his daughter, Jessica, steals the ring. Unlike other villains, he does not break laws, he is a law abiding citizen. When he wants Antonio killed, it’s within the law due to his “merry bond.”

With all this said, he still is still the Villain and he does have some of the typical villain attributes. He is full of revenge. All he wants to do, when in court, is kill Antonio. He openly, in court, refuses to take back thrice the amount he lent, which would add up to nine thousand Ducats. When he enters the court room, you see him carrying his “implements of destruction.” He is prejudiced against Christians. You get a good idea of this, when he says this to Antonio when Antonio asks him for the money; “I’ll only do this business with you, I won’t do this again with you, and I won’t with you or talk to you or anything.” You can see that he hates the fact that he is helping out a Christian. He is very devious as he has this bond all ready if Antonio does not pay up. He is the only one in the play that actually hates music. Back in Elizabethan times, almost everyone loved music; they said that music was a part of the soul. This portrays Shylock as inhuman. He says to Jessica, “Shut up my house’s ears.” He would not let in any type of music from outside. He is a very isolated man, quite unsociable. As they used to say back in Elizabethan times, to be a complete man, you must take part in the life of your society, which is to help your community and become an active member.

With all this in mind, the Elizabethan audience would not even care to look at his positive attributes, but today’s more modern audiences would feel sorry for how he is ridiculed and spat on. The audience would feel some sort of pity for him when Antonio says, “I’m like to kick you again!” On the other hand the Elizabethan audience members might go up on stage and give him a pat on the back.

When the court scene begins, Shylock is not anywhere to be seen nor is Antonio, the supposed victim of his. The duke is there who is supposed to be the master of ceremonies. One thing that you should know is that Antonio and the Duke are good friends, which puts Shylock in a bad position right away as the man who decides his fate is biased towards Antonio, meaning that he is in favour of helping out Antonio. The Duke says to Antonio, “I’m Sorry for Thee.” You can see that Shylock will have his work cut out for him. The court rooms are a place of justice, the duke should not even think to be biased. They describe Shylock as, “stony, cold and inhuman.” They say that he is incapable of pity. He is at the bottom of the chain of beings, below animals. You can see that Shylock is being criticised in his absence. The Christians who are in the court at the moment refer to him as “The Jew.” He is nameless to these people. He is portrayed, through their use of language, as a stone cold villain.

After much criticism and “behind his back” abuse, Shylock comes in. His entry is quite dramatic in the way of what he brings in with him. It shows his cold side, and that he wants to get down to business, which is in this case, killing Antonio. Shylock comes in carrying three items; a knife to cut the flesh, which symbolises revenge; some scales to weigh out the flesh, which symbolises Justice, his bond, which he is so proud of, representing his legal rights and what he can do to Antonio according to the Law. Naturally the audience would be shocked and horrified. The one thing you will notice, I sure did, is that Shylock is the odd man out. He comes in, alone, as the Only Jew in the room. It really puts emphasis on how he is different. You can imagine him coming in dressed in his Gaberdeen, wearing his skull cap. He is somewhat isolated. The important parts of this scene are the two speeches. The Duke says to Shylock “We expect you to be filled with pity and passion, please show some mercy.” You see the Duke is trying his hardest to persuade Shylock to re-consider, and making him actually think of what he going to do. Shylock responds, rather coldly and openly, that he will not show mercy, he wants Antonio to suffer for disrespecting Shylock’s authority. This really enforces the fact that Shylock is a ruthless scoundrel.

The two “women” enter the courtroom with a message that the doctor Balthasar (Portia) has being sent to replace the original doctor, Bellario. Portia begins her case with a plea for mercy, she begs him to forfeit the bond and accept three times the amount. Shylock refuses, as he wants to take his revenge on the Christians who have criticized him because he is a Jew. Again, this shows his ruthless, cold side; he has no remorse. Portia asks to have a surgeon by his side, just in case Antonio bleeds to death. Portia then reads the bond and discovers that Shylock is only allowed to take one pound of Antonio’s flesh. She tells him that he can take his pound of flesh on the condition that he takes exactly one pound of flesh and only flesh. No blood shall be shed. Now we know that this is near enough impossible, to cut a part of someone’s body, and to have no blood spillages, and how can he cut exactly one pound of flesh? Of course he is going to go over the limit or below the limit, no one is that accurate. Shylock is forced to forfeit the bond; if he does go outside the conditions then he too will be punished. Since he forfeited the bond, but threatened the life on a Venetian, Shylock was forced to give up his money, half to Antonio the other half to the general state. Antonio takes pity on the Jew and declines his half of the money, he tells the court that Shylock can keep his money, but on the condition that he change into Christianity and leaves his money to his daughter on his death. The Jew painfully agrees. So he has now lost it all. He started out as a character that, near enough, had it all. Riches, a stable business, good daughter, but then some reality kicked in, and knocked him off his floating cloud. His daughter runs away, with a Christian, and steals money from him, and that precious ring that Shylock said he would never give away for all the riches in the world.

The men, who were Antonio, Bassanio and Gratiano, gratefully thank doctor Balthasar, Portia, and her clerk, Nerissa; they offer them anything they desire. Portia and Nerissa both ask for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s rings. Reluctantly they hand it to them, as it was a present from their wives who told them never to lose it. Portia and Nerissa return home, soon after Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano return with the good news. Portia and Nerrissa demand to know what happened to the rings, the men apologize and explain the situation. Portia and Nerissa show them the rings and explain that they were the two doctors. So they found out that the two “male lawyers” were Portia and her assistant Nerissa.

Shylock is content to go along with this atrocious attack on Antonio after Portia declares it legal and that he can indeed take his pound of flesh. He is so ready to do this, but Portia casually tells him that, “You can not spill not one jot of blood.” When Shylock hears this he just thinks that’s just “silly” talk. He takes no notice, but Portia then claims, by his bond that it has to be an EXACT pound of flesh. No blood? Perfect in weight? How can he make sure that he does not go over? Portia says that if he were to take a pound of flesh but go over, Shylock will be executed on the spot. All the while when Portia was agreeing with Shylock, he was making remarks such as “O, learned Judge” “Oh, such smart Judge.” He loved the gloating. Of course, now that the judge has turned against him, the Christians are doing the same to him; instead they are doing it in a sarcastic tone. You could say that the turning point of this play is when Portia says the three words “tarry a little.” This relates to the fact that if he does go ahead with the bond and ignores this “small print” he will have half of his land and goods taken from him. So with this in mind, Shylock says, “Then I will have my principal,” meaning he wants his original three thousand ducats. Portia disallows the three thousand ducats as Shylock refused it in open court. So Shylock cannot believe this. The duke is sitting there, and says that he is an alien, meaning that he was not Christian (not the little green dudes), and if he tried to take the life of a natural born Christian, he would be executed. Things just keep getting worse for old Shylock. The Duke is not full of evil, he is merciful, unlike Shylock, and says to him that he can live but only on the conditions which Antonio sets. Antonio wants to make him a true Christian and that half of his goods go to Antonio and half to his daughter Jessica. Shylock is stripped of everything; his money, his lands and goods, even his religion. He, essentially, has nothing left, this making him a victim of this play.

So, with all this in mind, is Shylock represented as a victim or a villain? Well, whether Shylock is a victim or a villain depends not only on the text’s words but also on the audience. They have a big role in saying whether he is a victim or not. Elizabethans were culturally biased towards Christians. They probably hated anyone who was not pure Christian, especially Jews. Even when things happen to Shylock that would make us feel sorry, it would not have even the slightest effect on the Elizabethans. Being a comedy, there has to be a villain with typical villain values. Shylock’s role keeps bouncing back from Villain to Victim. He is a villain when in court, when he gets his knife ready, “A Sentence, Come Prepare!” this showing his cold, ruthless side. But before he even enters the court scene, he is victimised. He is referred to as “the Jew.” The Christians call him “bloody, cold, ravenous,” which, of course, isn’t a good thing to say although it does speak the truth about most of his actions. The punishment itself leaves Shylock as a helpless victim. It leaves him stripped of his most prized possessions, including something that most do not lose, his religion. You could say Antonio saves Shylock in a couple of ways. By making him Christian he promises him “eternal salvation” which is something Christians believe in also it allows him to be a part of society. That’s what the Elizabethans would think, but our modern multi-cultural view is no. He is not getting saved, he has to convert against his will, he does not want to. My answer, I think Shylock is victimised so much more than what he does to be a villain. So, I think Shakespeare is trying to make him a villain, but wants him to make him suffer for his misdeeds, something that does not happen often in comedies.

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