Character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Shylock is almost unanimously accepted as the most vivid and memorable character in The Merchant of Venice, and as one of Shakespeare's greatest dramatic creations. But the character of Shylock has also been the subject of much critical debate: no consensus has been reached on whether to read him as a bloodthirsty bogeyman, a clownish Jewish stereotype, or a tragic figure whose sense of decency has been fractured by the persecution he endures.

Certainly, Shylock is the play’s antagonist. His function in this play is to be the obstacle, and he is menacing enough to seriously imperil the happiness of Venice’s businessmen and young lovers alike. Such a man is a traditional villain in romantic comedies. Shylock ensures that his peers and the audience will not like him because of his unreasonableness and greed. In several instances he takes a perverse pleasure in what he refers to as “a merry sport” of exacting “an equal pound/Of…fair flesh to be cut off and taken/In what part of [the] body pleaseth me” as the terms of a loan agreement (I.iii.151-146), terms which he refuses to justify.

At the same time, Shylock is, however, a creation of circumstance; even in his single-minded pursuit of a pound of flesh, his frequent mentions of the cruelty he has endured at Christian hands make it hard for us to label him a natural born monster. The reader, when performing even a basic character analysis of Shylock, can feel a curious compassion for this character, which is so clearly disliked. Although he has imposed isolation on himself by declaring that he will not “eat/ with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” ( I.iii/ ll. 33-34), one begins to understand why he has withdrawn from social life when he makes his moving speech in Act III, in which he, who is the victim of racism, asks “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (III.i.54). The reader begins to understand how Shylock has never been understood because no one has ever seen him for anything other than his Jewishness. Usury, after all, was usually the only occupation which the law allowed to them. Again, this complicates the reader’s relationship with his character and the subsequent punishment he receives; because although he is not likable, one cannot help but sympathize with his plight as an outcast. In one of Shakespeare’s most famous monologues, for example, Shylock argues his quest for vengeance is the product of lessons taught to him by the cruelty of Venetian citizens.

When Shylock leaves the courtroom in Act IV, Scene 1, he is stripped of all that he has. He is a defeated man. Yet, Shakespeare's intention was not to make Shylock a tragic figure; instead, Shylock was meant to function as a man who could be vividly realized as the epitome of selfishness; he must be defeated and punished in this romantic comedy. At the same time, though, his punishment is problematic for it seems to mimic the very crime of which Shylock is really being accused, and that crime is absolutism. By insisting that Shylock must be punished in the way that he is, Shakespeare raises doubts about the purity of Christian love and mercy, which certainly creates implications for the very notions of both punishment and villainy.

It is Shylock himself who teaches the reader and his own peers the most about Christian love and mercy in  “The Merchant of Venice”. As he continues his Act III speech, he muses about the similarities between Jews and Christians in one of the meaningful quotes, saying, “Fed… the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means… as a Christian is….,” and then confronts his Christian accusers and judges with three profound questions that invoke these themes in “Merchant of Venice”: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” (III.i.54-62). The cycle of strange violence that Shylock has set into motion will not end once his punishment has been meted out to him, as he goes on to warn in the remainder of the speech. Rather than learn this lesson—namely, that revenge in the guise of justice will never result in anything other than more revenge—Shylock receives his punishment. Years later, we see the same kinds of issues played out in society, proving that we have learned little about what Shakespeare hoped to teach us through Shylock.

Shylock is drawn in bold strokes; he is meant to be a "villain" in terms of the romantic comedy, but because of the multi-dimensionality which Shakespeare gives him, we are meant to sympathize with him at times, loathe him at others. Shakespeare's manipulation of our emotions regarding Shylock is a testament to his genius as a creator of character.

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 9:29 PM