The Merchant of Venice and Shylock’s Character Essay

Submitted By jusername
Words: 1003
Pages: 5

Armish Singh
Eng 245 A04
Scott Wilkins
02/14/13
Shylock is a complex character from William Shakespeare’s tragic comedy, The Merchant of Venice, who personifies Jewish stereotypes and is despised and insulted by the other characters throughout the play. Shylock is an outsider, both literally and figuratively; he lives separated from Christian society and is cast as an archetype Jew. At many points in the play, Shylock--and by extension, all Jews--are depicted as greedy, devious, and cruel. Jews are continually mocked, described in bestial terms, and are even equated with the devil and evil. This leads many critics to believe that “The Merchant of Venice” is an anti-semitic play. However, the play shows both Christian and Jewish characters in an equally bad light. Shakespeare creates Shylock as a comical, yet villainous character, that the audience can laugh at and sympathize with. Before labeling this play as anti-Semitic, it is important to understand the historical and theatrical conditions under which this play was written. In Elizabethan times, Jews were barred from many professions because they were seen as outsiders and were not trusted. And since Christian’s could not lend money with interest under Elizabethan rule, many Jews became usurers, and were commonly despised by a predominantly Christian society. Hence, the comical portrayal of Jews in theater was a long standing tradition and was extremely popular at the Shakespeare wrote this play. (Furthermore, jokes about evil usurers in the Elizabethan era would be akin to jokes about the evil and greedy “one percent” in contemporary society.) This is significant because William Shakespeare was part of the theater company who owned the Globe theater in early modern London. He was an exceptionally good businessman who knew exactly what his audience wanted. Therefore, Shylocks character (and perhaps the play itself) was likely molded under the influence of history, and by the traditional roles that Jews played in the theater that preceded him. Shylock’s character is introduced as a stereotypical, money-hungry Jewish usurer, who hates Antonio because “he is Christian” (1.3.43). This, of course, pandered to the prejudices of the audiences and supports the argument for the play being anti-Semitic. Shylock, however, offers a valid reason for hating Antonio, a reason that even Christians cannot overlook: “He lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice” (1.3.44-45). Since the merchant lends money without interest, Shylock's business and his sole means of providing for himself and his family is at risk. By providing Shylock with a motive to hate Antonio, Shakespeare rejects the notion that all Jews are inherently evil. Moreover, he portrays Christian heroes with villainous traits and an evil Jew who has heroic reasons to hate. By giving the evil, Jewish character a rational reason to hate, Shakespeare is mocking the ignorance and illogicality of racial prejudice. As the play progresses, Shylock’s character develops further and the audience begins to see and sympathize with his emotions and his humanity. When Shylock discovers that his daughter, Jessica, stole the ring that his deceased wife gave to him before they were married, he feels immense pain and anguish: “Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (3.1.102-5). Shakespeare’s choice of a turquoise ring--rather than a tradition diamond ring--shows that the value of the ring is no importance to him. Furthermore, by showing that Shylock also feels emotional pain, and has sentimental values, the audience is able to relate to his humanity. Moreover, one of the most famous lines from this play infuses Shylock’s character with sympathy and humanity (though some contradictions exist within the speech):
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not…