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Throughout the Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare presents a multi-faceted presentation of Shylock. Although Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock conforms to the stereotypical views of Jews in many ways by presenting Shylock as villainous and the problem that needs to be overcome in this Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare also presents Shylock as oppressed, and presents a softer interior to Shylock’s character, challenging this atrocious stereotype that was so typical in the Elizabethan Era by presenting un unbeknownst side of Jews to the stage.
When we are first introduced to Shylock in Act 1 scene 3, it is evident that Shakespeare is presenting Shylock as hateful. This is shown when immediately after being introduced to Antonio by Bassanio, Shylock says, “I hate him for he is a Christian”. The word ‘hate’ clearly shows the extent of his antipathy for Antonio, furthermore, the alliteration between the words ‘hate’ and ‘him’ further demonstrates his hatred. Shylock also explicitly stated that he hates Antonio ‘for he is a Christian’, this shows that the hatred Shylock holds for Antonio is based on religion. This correlates to the historical context, because during the Elizabethan era, Jews were regarded as inferior beings, the animosity between Christians and Jews was so great, that even king Edward the First exiled them from England. In the same extract, Shakespeare uses vivid imagery to further convey the hateful emotions of Shylock when he says, “If I catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him”. The imagery used when Shylock says, ‘I will feed fat’, creates an image of Shylock being a barbaric monster in our heads, feeding upon Antonio’s fat. Shakespeare also uses alliteration again here, with the words ‘feed’ and ‘fat’. When the entire line is spoken aloud, these two words gather the most attention, highlighting Shylock’s venomous nature. Finally, at the end of the line, Shylock says: “Curséd be my tribe if I ever forgive him”. Shylock is swearing on his religion that he would not forgive Antonio, and earlier on in the extract, Shylock called his religion ‘sacred’, which evidently means that it is important to him. By making such a religious man swear on his own religion for revenge, Shakespeare is creating an ominous atmosphere of foreboding as the audience worry for Antonio. Furthermore, the antipathy felt in the audience for Shylock is ever growing, for not only is Shylock a Jew in a time where Jews were despised, but he was also scheming against a ‘righteous’ Christian. Additionally, Shylock calls his religion his ‘tribe’. By doing this, Shakespeare hints that Shylock is barbaric and primitive, because the word ‘tribe’ was most used to describe uncivilised groups of people.
At the beginning of the play, Shylock’s hatred towards Antonio was quite secret, when speaking in an aside, Shylock referred to Antonio as a ‘fawning publican’, while in public, he politely called him ‘Signor Antonio’. The contrast between these two ways that Shylock referred Antonio is evidence of Shakespeare presenting Shylock’s deceptiveness and cunning. It is also evidence of Shakespeare pointing out the inferior position, and segregation, of Jews in society, for they were not allowed to express any of their views out loud, only in uttermost secret for fear of legal punishment. Even in Act 4 Scene 1, Jews were legally regarded as ‘aliens’ to Venice, even if they were citizens. However, as the play develops, Shylock’s power over Antonio increases. The turning point is when it is revealed that Antonio’s ships have all sunk. When that happens, it is the Christian’s turn to bend down before the Jew and beg for mercy. Since Shylock was a Jew, it was hard for the Elizabethan audience to emphasize with him. However, when their adored Christian Antonio is called a ‘fool’ by Shylock, a mere Jew, Antonio’s helplessness would be flowing throughout the audience. Cleverly, Shakespeare might be trying to make the audience understand Shylock’s suffering by forcing a Christian character to suffer through the same mistreatment as a Jew.
Not only is Shylock presented as hateful, but he is also presented as vengeful throughout the entirety of the play. When agreeing to the terms of the bond, Shylock declared that if Antonio broke the bond, he would get ‘an equal pound of your fair flesh’. By using the adjective ‘fair’ to describe Antonio’s flesh (which wouldn’t conventionally be described as fair), Shylock could be seen as mocking Antonio, almost challenging him to back out because he feared a Jew. Disgust would be rippling throughout the audience as Shylock persuades Antonio into signing the bond. This vengeful presentation of Jewish characters was not abnormal during the Elizabethan era, for there were countless plays portraying Jews in the same vengeful light, such as Christopher Marlowe’s presentation of the Jew Barabas in his infamous play: ‘The Jew of Malta’. However, unlike these other plays, Shylock isn’t seeking money or anything of monetary value, ‘If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them. I would have my bond’. Shakespeare could be trying to show that Jews were not only driven by a desire for money, contrary to what was believed during Elizabethan times.
As the play continues, Shylock’s desire for revenge remains unwavering. In Act 3 Scene 1, Shylock repeatedly repeats the sentence ‘Let him look to his bond’ in response to Solanio and Salerino begging Shylock to mitigate the repercussions on Antonio if he broke the bond. The short, monosyllabic line hints a tone of obstinacy and determination to make Antonio suffer. This would be quite unnerving for the contemporary audience, while the Elizabethan audience would just have their prejudiced ideas about Jews being confirmed. Furthermore, the repetition of this line indicates Shylock determination to have his ‘bond’.
Similarly, in Act 3 Scene 3, when Antonio begs Shylock to spare him, Shylock continuously interrupts his pleads with the declaration: ‘I’ll have my bond’. This reveals many things, firstly, it shows how in terms of power, the tables have completely turned. In the beginning of the play, Shylock was constantly interrupted by Antonio when trying to speak, though the converse is true in this scene. This would be quite unexpected for the Elizabethan audience, as they viewed Jews as worthless, however, Shakespeare is proving that one’s religion doesn’t determine their influence in society. The short, monosyllabic line, and the contraction ‘I’ll’, hints a feeling of finality, confirming to both the audience and the characters that Shylock will not alleviate Antonio’s punishments. Furthermore, every time Shylock refers to the ‘bond’ with Antonio, he uses the possessive pronoun ‘my’, this shows how important the fulfilment of the bond is to him.
However, Shakespeare also presents Shylock as oppressed and mistreated countless times throughout the play. Firstly, Shylock is constantly dehumanised from act to act. He is constantly referred to as a ‘devil’, a ‘dog, a ‘cur’ and a ‘villain’. By making the characters call Shylock such derogatory names, Shakespeare is showing how Jews were wrongly thought of as an inferior species, below Christians in the Great Chain of being, and amongst the rank of the animals. Furthermore, by making every character refer to Shylock using these terms, repeatedly, Shakespeare is revealing that everyone in society viewed Shylock in such a way. Shylock is also constantly insulted with words from the same semantic field of religion, such as: ‘devil’ and ‘misbeliever’. This shows how the insults shot at Shylock were not just because of the characters’ dislike of him, but also because of dislike for his religion. Shakespeare is highlighting not just the mistreatment of Shylock, but the mistreatment of all Jews at that time. The words indicate that the characters viewed Judaism as an inferior religion, and anyone following that religion was to be mistreated. Additionally, Antonio, who was meant to be the perfect Christian, treated Shylock with uttermost disrespect. In Act 1 Scene 3, when Shylock says, ‘you, that did void your rheum upon my beard’, Shakespeare uses vivid, disgusting imagery to encapsulate the mistreatment of Jews in one, atrocious image. By showing this oppressed side of Shylock, Shakespeare is questioning the audience on whether Shylock’s bond against Antonio was actually justifiable, because although Shylock’s idea of punishment seemed to be excessively harsh, Shylock has a point when he says: ‘If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that’. By using a rhetorical question, Shakespeare is questioning the paradoxical theme of justice. Shakespeare is asking the question: Why Is it that on one hand, it is completely unacceptable for a Christian (Antonio) to almost be killed by a Jew (Shylock), even though it was perfectly within Shylock’s rights, whereas it is perfectly fine for a Jew to be forced out of his religion, lest he wanted death, and forced to relinquish most of his assets and his wealth, which is arguably worse than death, by a Christian?
There are also moments throughout the play where Shylock’s hard, hateful exterior is pierced, and his inner emotions are revealed. The most adequate example of this is in Act 3 Scene 1. When Shylock is being interrogated by Solanio and Salarino, Shylock delivers his famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech. In this speech Shylock is constantly using rhetorical questions to convey his annoyance of the mistreatment of Jews. Normally, Shylock only shows anger and hatred for Christian characters, and is always trying to differentiate himself from them. However, in this speech, Shylock is saying that Jews are like everyone else, which was contrary to his earlier actions. By doing this, Shakespeare is showing that underneath his hateful and angry exterior, Shylock is just an ordinary man that just wants to be treated with equality and respect. Since this was acted out on stage, it could also be suggesting that Shakespeare was indirectly questioning the mistreatment of all Jews by society at that time. Furthermore, rhetorical questions are used communicate with the audience, further supporting this notion.
Later in the same act, Shylock’s more humane nature is revealed when he realised that Jessica sold his wife’s ring. He reacted with immense sadness. ‘Thou torturest me, Tubal.’ Is what he said after being revealed that. The verb ‘torturest’ shows us that his ring was very important to him, and that it held great value. In fact, the ring belonged to Shylock’s wife, ‘Leah, who previously died. Shakespeare challenges the notion that Jews only cared for money by revealing the sadness emanating from Shylock after losing his wife’s ring. Furthermore, this notion is supported by the next line, where Shylock says, ‘I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys’. Monkeys were very expensive and exotic creatures at that time, and by caring for his wife’s ring more than a ‘wilderness of monkeys’, Shakespeare is showing that Jews didn’t judge something’s value just because of its monetary value, which was completely contrary to conventional beliefs during the Elizabethan era. Furthermore, Shakespeare is subtly demonstrating the quote: ‘All that glisters is not gold’, because even though Shylock was seen as greedy and uncaring, he valued his wife’s ring beyond anything, whereas Bassanio, a perfect Christian, relinquished his wife’s ring to who he thought was a man. Shakespeare is imploring people to not hate or love someone based on assumptions, but to look deeper into their character, for ‘all that glisters is not gold’.
In conclusion, neither does Shakespeare present Shylock as demonic and animalistic, as conventionally thought of during the Elizabethan era, or as angelic and perfect. Instead, through Shylock, Shakespeare presents a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions to emphasise the fact that Jews are just human. Throughout the play, even the perfect Antonio and the righteous Bassanio have made great errors. Antonio, when he seemingly attempts to seduce Bassanio. And Bassanio, when he gave away Portia’s ring. However, by the end of the play, these characters are nonchalantly let off the hook by both the audience and the characters, while Shylock has been stripped of everything: his wealth, his family and his religion. Since Shakespeare was a playwright for the people, he couldn’t blatantly support Jewish rights and oppose the views of society at that time, however, by presenting Shylock as constantly mistreated and never shown mercy, Shakespeare is imploring the audience to treat everyone equally, and not to judge a book by its cover.
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