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Shakespeare’s characterisation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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  • Category: Character

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‘The Merchant of Venice is set in the late 15th century. In this period England was a Christian country, all the children were baptised soon after they were born, and were taught the essentials of Christian faith from a early age.

Because of the age which ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written, part of what we need to understand when we look at the treatment of Shylock is the anti-Semitism that existed in Shakespeare’s England. Shakespeare’s age based their anti-Semitism on religious grounds. The Elizabethans inherited the fiction, fabricated by the early church, that the Jews murdered Christ and were therefore in league with the devil. And so immediately we see a view against Jews, taken probably by most of those who lived in Shakespeare’s age. We can see that perhaps Shylock would have been immediately portrayed with hatred because of the way that society viewed Jews at the time.

The critics John Palmer and William Hazlitt, both consider the conflict between Jew and Christian when approaching the characterisation of Shylock but in very different ways. Hazlitt sees Shylock as a symbolic figure for Jews, a man who has been mistreated by Christians and is merely searching for justice. He sees him very much as a tragic character. Palmer disagrees with this, he sees Shylock as a comical figure who has been created purely for humour and is humanised only to make his character more realistic.

I disagree with both Palmer and Hazlitt, I do not see Shylock as a tragic character or a comic figure. I think that he is meant to be seen as the villain of the play.

I would see a villain, as a character that has been corrupted by hate and evil intentions, from the very beginning this is evident.

The first time that we meet Shylock we see these bad intentions surface.

“For three months, well…Antonio shall be bound, well…three thousand ducats for three months and Antonio shall be bound” (Act 1 scene 3-9)

The language, which Shylock uses here, gives the impression that he is thinking. And from the nature of what they are discussing he seems to be plotting about how he will catch Antonio out. Here we see Shakespeare set the character of Shylock, at our very first meeting, as a villain.

“Three thousand ducats, well” (Act 1 scene 2 line 1)

The first thing we hear him talk about is his money, which suggests again that Shakespeare already had a view about how he wanted the audience to approach Shylock’s characterisation. Shylock has a specific method in the way that he speaks, he spells things out and is explicit.

Such speech reflects that of a materialistic mind, as he stubbornly and obsessively repeats the same line and phrases. He often speaks in very harsh ways using monosyllables to express his bitterness ‘Ho, no, no,no,no,no,no,no!’ which really shows Shylock to be cold and suggest that he is an unapproachable, single minded character with somewhat limited imagination.

Hazlitt would not agree that Shylock is a villain!

He was a critic who wrote this particular piece just after the Renaissance had happened where there had been rebirths of new ideas. Hazlitt took on a socialist view of Shylock being downtrodden and may have taken this sympathetic view because of the revolution, which was going on. He does not see Shylock’s character as a ‘bug bear’ but as a character that deserves justice, and only wants revenge.

“…Jewish revenge is at least as good as Christian injuries.”

He sees Shylock portrayed not as a villain but as a victim of Christian malice. Hazlitt believes that Shylock has been badly mistreated by the Christians. He believes that Shylock has been ‘banished’, ‘reviled’ and ‘trampled’ upon, by the Christians.

Shylock has a bad history with the Jews mistreating him.

“You did void your rheum upon my beard…You call’d me dog…” (Act 1 scene 3 line 112 and 123).

Inspite of this mistreatment towards Shylock, Palmer does not feel any sympathy for Shylock. He believes that everything in Shylock is written to portray the humour in him. And that other critics such as Hazlitt, have misinterpreted Shylock as a tragic figure.

“For many brilliant and sensitive critics, a moving, almost tragic figure.”

He suggests that those other critics, perhaps Hazliit, are wrong to feel sympathy for Shylock because sympathy will take away from the comedy Shakespeare intended to show in Shylock. Palmer believes that if you take what Shylock says out of the context of the comical play you will see Shylock to be a tragic character.

Hazlitt takes a different view, saying that Shylock makes us feel pity for him because of the way that he is mistreated.

“We can hardly help sympathising.”

Hazlitt only sees Shylock as a tragic figure.

Palmer expresses how he sees Shylock as the stock character of the play. He believes that Shylock was created purely for comic purposes. That his very language separates him from the rest, making him an intense character, but a very funny one.

” Different kind of man from his Christian adversaries”

But I do not agree with Hazlitt or Palmer.

I do not think that the comedy lies in Shylock’s character alone. Neither do I believe that we are suppose to see Shylock through sympathetic eyes.

I agree that Shylock has been made apart from the others, but I do not think that it is for comical purposes.

Shakespeare deliberately sets Shylock apart to emphasise his villainous characteristics.

“But I will not eat with you…nor will I pray with you…” (Act 1 scene 3 lines 32 and 33).

Here he clearly separates himself and rejects any ideas of socialising with his fellow man.

I do not believe as Hazlitt says that Shylock has anything to do with ‘justice’ on his mind. After we find out in Act 1 scene 3 that Christians have mistreated Shylock you do not see any sign in Shylock that reflects a character who wants to be accepted. He goes on to express so much hatred and anger suggesting that he is not willing to forgive or change. It seems that his bad experiences with Christians have done nothing but surface a hatred, which was already there.

“…The ancient grudge I bear him” (Act 1 scene 3 line 42)

So what Shylock wants, above all, is revenge!

Here we see Shylock speak of what his revenge will be, justifying it with the fact that he has been called a ‘dog’ and he has been ‘spat upon’.

He speaks later of this grudge as a fuel for his revenge, he says that it is a fight for his ‘sacred nation.’ And because Shylock seems to react out of a duty to his race we could perhaps see this as a justified anger. Hazzlitt states

“The desire for revenge is almost inseparable from the sense of wrongs.”

But I disagree with this, because we see in Shylock’s reaction to his money and home being taken an even stronger emotion.

“When you take my house…you take my life”

To compare Shylock’s desire for revenge and his desire to have his possessions taken away would prove to us that Shylock’s hatred is by no means justified.

And perhaps Shylock’s reaction here proves that his intentions are more materialistic than revengeful. As we often see throughout Shylock’s role, a lot of talk about money and his desire for it.

Palmer directs us to look at the scene where Jessica has run away with a Christian man, and Shylock’s money. He describes Shylock’s response in this scene as a comic scene, which was merely included to bring out more of the comic character in Shylock.

“Jessica gilds herself with Shylock’s ducats so that Shylock may reveal himself more effectively as an essentially comic character.”

I do not agree with Palmer’s interpretation of this scene. It was not for comedy’s sake, but to let us see more and more how materialistic Shylock is. Shakespeare gradually unravels a long stream of villainous characteristics, and this scene accentuates that for the audience. There seems to be a conflict going on in Shylock between the worry of his money being taken and his daughter being gone.

“My daughter! O my ducats! Oh my daughter…of double ducts, stolen form me by my daughter!” (Act2 scene8 lines 15 and 19)

He seems to care more of his money than of his daughter.

“My daughter stolen my money and run off.”

That very fact is enough for us me to suggests that Shylock doesn’t feel much for his daughter.

Again, the critic Palmer looks at the scene in Act 2 where Shylock asks Jessica to make sure that she locks all the doors. Palmer believes here that Shylock is shown more to care for his house than for his daughter.

“It is the house which stands at Shylock’s being, Jessica is no more than the daughter of the house.”

And although this is a strong statement, I believe that Shakespeare has portrayed Shylock, here especially again, to be materialistic, to value his possessions more than he values his daughter.

Hazlitt and Palmer look up to this trial scene, as a very important explanation of Shylock’s character and the play itself.

The critic Hazlitt believes that this is a scene for Shylock, which brings out his true colours, and shows us the intelligence of Shylock. Hazlitt believes that it was only by ‘legal flaw’ that he fails.

Hazlitt sees Shylock as a character that is ‘triumphant’ and ‘eloquent’.

But, the critic Palmer again would not see this trial in the same light.

Palmer sees this scene as one that was meant for the audience to find Shylock most humorous. He believes everything in this play is pre-destined for Shylock and so this scene is when he finally gets what’s coming to him.

But again, I do not agree, although I do believe that this scene is important in looking at Shylock’s character, I do not think that it proves him to be a comical or tragic character. This first highlights the villainous characteristics of Shylock. He is not willing to back down, and does not see that he is doing anything wrong.

“What judgement shall I dread doing no wrong” (Act4 scene 1 line 89)

Here, again, Shylock shows no indications of moral dilemma.

He proves himself to be a hypocrite, as he does throughout the whole play.

Shylock is disrespectful to the Christian faith, and shows a lot of hatred towards them.

“Prodigal Christian…fools…foppery…” (Act 2 scene 5 lines 15,33 and 35)

He speaks sarcastically of Christians, saying that they have poor lives and that they are fools.

“fools with varnish’d faces…” (Act 2 scene 5 line 33)

Here he is suggesting that Christians are dualistic in their faith, that they are two faced.

“By Jacobs staff I swear…” (Act 2 scene 5 line 36)

In this use of religious imagery Shylock is trying to make his argument biblical, but he is almost being hypocritical in the way that he does it. Because he shows so much hate, which is not a good reflection of the Jewish faith.

He even compares himself to people in the bible!

Hazlitt would not agree with me, as he thinks that the Christians are hypocrites.

“…Rankest hypocrisy…”

But I think we see this hypocrisy in Shylock more than once, in the trial scene he uses religious imagery in his arguments.

“…By your holy Sabbath have I sworn” (Act 4 scene 1 line36)

Shylock swore on a holy day that he would kill Antonio, murder does not reflect the person who values their religion.

Palmer rightly says the trial scene is the climax of the whole play, it has built right up to this point when the inevitable for Shylock will happen. They both have very different views on Shylock’s characterisation. I view Shakespeare’s characterisation of Shylock to have real dramatic purpose in the play but I do not believe that he is wanting us to think that all the comedy in the play lies upon Shylock’s character. Neither does he want us to see Shylock as tragic character that we should feel sympathy for. I believe that Shakespeare would not want us to see the comedy or tragedy of the play to lie in Shylock, but he wants us to see him as the villain of the play. He does not seem proved to be otherwise, and fits such a role perfectly.

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