Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, is centered on Antonio, a wealthy Venetian merchant. Although he is wealthy, his money is invested abroad. So, when Bassanio, a close friend of his, comes asking for a loan, Antonio has to ask him to borrow from someone else under his guarantee. Bassanio asks Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the loan. Shylock and Antonio seem to have a mutual loathing for each other and so, this loan is an important part in the plot. Antonio hates Shylock because he is Jewish and lends money with interest. Shylock hates Antonio because he lends money without interest and thus brings down his interest. Although the play is centered on Antonio, the main character of this play is Shylock. He is first characterized as the "persecuted underdog" but he quickly becomes the villain of the play who has the qualities of greed and mercilessness.
Before looking at the characterization of shylock, some background information is needed about the position of the Jewish community in the Christian society at this time in the late sixteenth century. The Jews were considered inferiors by the Christians and used as scapegoats. They were blamed for the Black Death spreading across Europe in the Middle Ages. In Venice, Jews were "permitted to be self-governing in their internal affairs" but they still lived under strict conditions. (Lang). Lang continues to say that the "Jews were granted residency, but in an isolated district near iron foundries." These areas were called the Ghettos and they "were officially sealed shut at night" (Lang). They were allowed to leave the Ghetto during the day but even then they had to wear distinguishing clothing such as badges or yellow scarves. The Jews were also not allowed to own property. This law left them with relatively few livelihood options. For example, they could not farm because they could not buy land. So, they turned to usury, lending money with interest. The Christians did not approve of this because and they condemned obsession with money. This background information helps define the character of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. He is persecuted because of his faith and choice of livelihood. His persecution serves as a motive for revenge and to evoke sympathy from the audience.
Shylock is characterized as the "persecuted underdog" in the beginning of the play. He is patient and tolerant of Antonio and anti-Semitic remarks. When Antonio publicly humiliates Shylock in the marketplace, he bears this humility with tolerance. He says, "in the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usuances Ã¢ÂÂ¦ / You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog; / And spet upon my Jewish gabardine" (35). Shylock states the humiliations that Antonio has caused him. He has not only cursed him in public but has even spat upon his faith. Antonio criticizes Shylock for practicing usury, lending money with interest and yet he has come to ask him for a loan on behalf of Bassanio, a close friend of his. So, Shylock uses his astuteness and answers why should he lend him money after he degraded him. He says, "What should I say to you? Should I not say / 'Hath a dog money? Is it possible a cur can lend three thousand ducats?'" (35). Here, Shylock is showing his true intelligence because he uses Antonio own words against him in the conversation. He says that if Antonio considers him to be a dog, why does he expect a "dog, "an inhumane character, to lend him money. He is trying to show Antonio that he is human as Antonio is and that there are no differences among them besides their faith. To respond to Shylock, Antonio says that he will continue to curse Shylock and spit on him in public. Antonio here seems arrogant and looks down on his potential moneylender with disgust because he is Jewish. The conversations between the two men "seem to present a credible and sympathetic portrait of Shylock as a Jew who has long suffered Antonio's malice and contempt" (Lang). It is very clear that Shylock is being persecuted for his faith by Antonio and other Christians and thus, he is characterized as the second class citizen who cannot do much besides tolerate.
But, Shylock quickly changes from being a second class citizen to being the villain of the play. To persuade Shylock into lending him money, Antonio says, "But lend it rather to thine enemy, / Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face / exact the penalty "(37). It will be easier to extract the penalty for Shylock if he considers him an enemy instead of a normal customer. Shylock agrees to this proposal and responds with the terms of the contract. He says, "If you repay me not on such a day, / In such a place, such a sum or sums as are / Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / in what part of your body pleaseth me" (37). Shylock states that if Antonio does not repay the loan within three months as decided, the penalty will be a pound of his flesh. Antonio is very confident in his investments abroad that he agrees to this contract. As the terms and the conditions of the loan are declared, Shylock's greed, a very trait present in his avenging characterization, is seen. For he says, "A pound of man's flesh taken from a man / Is not so estimable, profitable neither / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats" (39). Greed is evident in this statement because he is valuing Antonio's flesh below that of animals. Thus, Shylock is considering the money the loss that he will undergo when he extracts the penalty of the bond. Shylock's vindictive character comes about very quickly as the contract and can be seen in the greed that is exhibited.
Shylock's intransigence is further seen in the scenes leading to the trial scene, the climax of the play. He is unwilling to compromise or listen to anyone who begs for mercy. As Antonio is being jailed, he begs Shylock for mercy. This by itself seems ironic because the man who showed no mercy towards humiliating Shylock is now begging for mercy. Shylock replies, "I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool, to shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield to Christian intercessors. Follow not! I'll have no speaking. I'll have my bond." (125). Shylock is not willing to listen to him and is concentrating on extracting the penalty of the bond at this point. When one of his acquaintances says that Shylock's greed is preposterous and asks about seeking help from the Duke, Antonio responds by saying, "The Duke cannot deny the course of law, For commodity that strangers have with us in Venice, if it be denied, will much impeach the Justice of the state since that the trade and profit of the city consisteth of all nations" (125-127). Antonio is saying that the law and justice are connected to the city's trade with other nations. If the law is bent and justice is denied, then the trade with other nations will suffer because Venice will no longer be trustworthy as it proclaims. When the Duke is begging Shylock to show mercy, he counters by saying, "I have sworn to have the due and forfeit of my bond. If you deny it, let the danger light upon your Charter and your city's freedom!" (143). He is warning the Duke that if he denies him his right to the bond, the economic and social settings of Venice will suffer. He also answers all his opponents by citing the hypocrisy of the Christians. He says that they own slaves yet refuse to give them equal luxuries or free them. So, why should he free Antonio of his punishment? "The pound of flesh which I demand of him is clearly bought, [tis] mine and I will have it" (147). Shylock's greed is once again apparent when he refuses to show mercy. There are plenty of people who beg for mercy on behalf of Antonio including the Duke, Bassanio, and Portia. Shylock is very sure that he will get his justice, so he is greedy for revenge. He is unwilling to listen to Bassanio who offers him three times as much money as the original bond. "An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven! Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? [No] not for Venice!" (157). Here he is saying that by accepting the money, he is committing a sin because he is going against the oath that he has taken. His intelligence, greed, and mercilessness characterize revenge. He is so steadfast on avenging his humiliations that he is unwilling to accept a large sum of money that is greater than that of the original bond and give mercy. He skillfully backs the people of the court into a corner in which they wither have to offer him justice or suffer the consequences of losing trade with other nations.
However, the rancorous side of Shylock does not long for Portia quickly puts an end to his greed. When Portia comes into the scene, she first agrees with Shylock and his claim. She tells him to show a little mercy and take the money that is offered. Greed gets in his way and he refuses. Shylock has been excited so much about getting revenge that he has come prepared by bringing a balance and a knife. Portia asks if a surgeon should be present and Shylock reacts by saying that it is not stated in the contract and thus, he should not be present. His lack of mercy is once again seen her because he is rather willing to see Antonio bleed to death. As he is about to cut into Antonio's flesh, Portia stops him stating that he is only to take his flesh and if a drop of blood is shed, the court has the right to take away his assets. "The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.' / Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, But in the cutting it, if thou dost shedIn conclusion, Shylock is a three dimensional character who changes throughout the play. In the beginning of the play, Shylock is inferior in the society and is persecuted for his faith and livelihood. This serves as a motive for revenge and brings about a change in his character to being the villain of the play. Shylock is considered the villain of the play because he is greedy. He is greedy for revenge. He is not willing to show mercy to Antonio because he is more concentrated on avenging his public humiliations. His vindictive character is most apparent in the trial scene in which he refuses to listen to anyone who begs for mercy because he is overconfident in the fact that the law will side with him. But, Portia shatters his confidence and puts him back in his place by taking away his assets as well as his faith. Having lost everything, Shylock is once again powerless in the society. Shylock's tragic flaw was the he could not be merciful and thus, he pays for it by renouncing his religion. He is a very important character in the play and he influences the racial and religious attitudes of the time through his characterization. He sheds a light on the anti-Semitism created the Christian society.
this essay used the original text from the Merchant of Venice andLang, Allen A. "On Shylock: a reassessment of Shakespeare's tragic Jew. (Arts andLetters)." Midstream 49.2 (Feb-March 2003): 31(3). Expanded AcademicASAP. Gale. Mass College of Pharmacy and Health Sci. 31 Mar.2009.