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Shakespeare’s Revenge

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Revenge is a common theme throughout the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. This paper will compare and contrast the two vengeful characters of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice and Prospero from The Tempest.

The Merchant of Venice offers up one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters in the guise of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The character is depicted with vile simplicity in the interpretation of Jewish culture and means. While Shylock persistently pursues the pound of flesh he has been promised as guarantee against the loan, he consistently mentions the horrors and hardships he has faced at the hands of Christians. In speaking to Bassanio, he states: “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine,” (I.iii.111-112). Yet, Shylock is the one people turn to in times of need, not as a man, but as a bank. The separation from humanity has boiled in his stomach for long enough. When the opportunity to debase Antonio arrives, Shylock jumps at the chance.

When Bassanio turns to his friend, Antonio to borrow money in order to court the lovely heiress, Portio, Antonio must send Bassanio to the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Shylock agrees to the deal, insisting that the Christian people turn to him constantly, yet do not see him any other time. When the monies come due, Shylock is forced to take Antonio to court. Despite the strange nature of the payment, Shylock is insistent that he will receive his due.

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (III.i.49–61)

The reader, although typically distasteful of the character’s actions, finds the moneylender looking for validation as much as payment. He searched for retribution for years of non-existence. His revenge is personally motivated, yet almost seemingly justified. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, exacerbates the situation by selling her mother’s ring behind her father’s back. On top of this, she has eloped with a Christian, Lorenzo. Shylock has lost everything he has ever had, money aside, and result is a hollow man with nothing left but revenge.

When asked by the court to show mercy, Shylock replies: “So can I give no reason, nor I will not, more than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I follow thus A losing suit against him. Are you answered,” (IV.i.43–61)? He simply can not do it, he has been wronged on so many fronts.

When given the choice to reap his reward of the pound of flesh, or take monetary replacement, Shylock folds. “Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice,” (IV.i.318-322). Shylock’s hand is forced, he must give up all he has desired, or lose all he has earned. The decision breaks him, and in the end, he goes for the money. Yet, the decision loses all grandeur for him, money is no longer what he covets, he has lost a daughter, whom he will never get back.

The same could be said of The Tempest’s Prospero. Years ago, Prospero had his dukedom taken by his brother as he was so focused on studying the art of magic, he neglected the rule of his domain. In trusting his brother to handle these tasks so that he may do as he pleased, Prospero too loses everything. As the ship of Antonio and the others is washed ashore to the island where Prospero has taken his daughter, Miranda, and some of his servants, Miranda begs him to take pity on the poor souls, but Prospero cannot.

Prospero sees too much opportunity in their plight, affording him a mode of revenge against his brother. Unlike Shylock, Prospero’s reason for vengeance is self-imposed. In not paying attention to his earthly duties, he opened the door for his brother to usurp him. “That a brother should be so perfidious! – he whom next thyself of all the world I loved and to him put the manage of my state,” (I.ii.68-70).

Thinking very highly of himself, Prospero takes off in explanation of his sorrowful tale to a bored daughter. She is too concerned with other things to listen to her father talk on and on about himself. Once he has finished his tale, Prospero puts Miranda to sleep and calls forth his magic sprite, Ariel. It is in the conversation he has with the creature that we finally see how deep the desire for revenge runs in Prospero.

Prospero intimates that he had Ariel create the temptest in order to lull the ship to his island shores. In doing so the stage is set, but the tale goes even further. Not only has everyone been brought to Prospero for his vengeful thoughts, but he has taken great care to ensure they be available for his revenge. Ariel replies to a question from Prospero with:
Not a hair perish’d; on their sustaining garments, not a blemish, but fresher than before: and as thou badest me, in troops I have dispersed them ‘bout the isle. This king’s son have I landed myself; whom I left cooling of air with sighs in an odd angle of the isle and sitting , his arms in a sad knot. (I.ii.217-225)

We begin to see that not only will he exact his revenge, but also Prospero intends to be meticulous about it. He will simply kill them off, he intends to play with them, make them understand what they have done wrong, rue the day they crossed him.

In the end, Prospero emerges a broken man, much the same as Shylock. He has failed in his mission, lost his daughter and has decided to give up magic – that which has caused all his grief. He addresses the audience in a final speech of remittance:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown, And what strength I have’s mine own, Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, I must be here confined by you, Or sent to Naples. Let me not, Since I have my dukedom got And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell In this bare island by your spell; But release me from my bands With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours my sails Must fill, or else my project fails, Which was to please. Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, And my ending is despair, Unless I be relieved by prayer, Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults. As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free. (V.i.1-20)

If the two characters had pursued justice rather than revenge, the ends may have been different. In fighting for his pound of flesh, Shylock only further darkens the image of Jewish people and their culture. He has made his case even worse and most likely the attitudes of the populous in regards to Jewish identity. Prospero could have chosen to fight for his dukedom from the beginning. He chose the art of Magic over government, and in doing so caused his own problems. If only he would realize he made his decision long ago, and received exactly what he valued most, scholarly knowledge of magical arts.

The significance of Prospero’s surrender shows that revenge is never as sweet one initially believes. Shylock, too, is forced to give up all that he loved dearly. Although intended to be a comical villain, Shylock had in fact lost everything: his daughter, his love of money, his hope of vindication. Prospero has also lost his daughter, magic and hope of vindication.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest.

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