Shylock - Victim or Villian

Essay by David SwerdloffCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 1996

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January 21, 1994 Shylock-Victim or Villain

In 1594 the Earl of Essex, an English Nobleman who lived during the Elizabethan period in England, was actively involved in the persecution and trials of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez was a Jew of Portuguese descent, who was wrongly accused of attempting to poison the Queen of England, for reasons never fully explained. Lopez, being the Queen's royal physician, was in no position to defend himself once he was accused. Essex, who provided the evidence also presided over the trial of Lopez, leaving Lopez little chance of survival. The innocent Jew was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Tyburn, England for all to witness.

The story of Roderigo Lopez is similar to the story of Shylock, although, Palmer tells us 'It is not suggested that Shakespeare in portraying Shylock, had any political or social intentions' ( 112-13). Both Jews were placed in time where 'anti-Semitism was in fashion' (Palmer 113), and both thrown into court where they would be tried unjustly.

The story of Roderigo Lopez sets the tone for The Merchant of Venice. Lopez' incident occurred in 1594, The Merchant of Venice was written only two years later. Anti-Semitism was prevalent during Shakespeares' time, and therefore we must understand that it was as easy for him to make a Jewish man the villain as it would be for us to make a Nazi the villain. According to Sylvan Barnet 'The Merchant of Venice [shows] the broad outline of a comedy (not merely a play with jests, but a play that ends happily). . . the villain in the comedy must be entirely villainous, or, rather, comically villainous; he cannot for a moment gain the audience's sympathy' (1). Shylock has often been portrayed as the villain in The Merchant of...