Monday, May 13, 2013



Shylock is the most vivid character in The Merchant of Venice. Actually naming the protagonist of this play is difficult - Antonio is too passive, yet his role leads us to believe his is the protagonist. However, critics have named Bassanio as the protagonist. It is a difficult question. Truth be told, Shylock, the antagonist is the most memorable character.

The character of Shylock has undergone critical debate over time. Is he simply a bloodthirsty villain? Or is he a man 'more sinned against than sinning?' That question is difficult to answer. Why? Because there are two Shylocks in the play - the villain who is required for the plot, and the human being who suffers the loss of his daughter, his property and his religion.

Shakespeare crafts a convincing villain. His plays thrive on the villain, his actions, his evil intent, his throwing of his world into chaos. In The Merchant of Venice, a romantic comedy, he is the cruel figure who stands in the way of the love story. Added to his role as the obstacle to the lovers getting what they want, he is a Jew. Shakespeare needed an ursurer, a moneylender for his plot. Usury was forbidden by God for Christians (Antonio) and the moneylending was the realm of the Jews. During the Middle Ages usury was the only occupation allowed to the Jew by law. So we have the stereotypical Jewish moneylender reviled by Christians.

Was Shakespeare anti-Semetic? A racist? Probably not. Shakespeare in his plays was only concerned with making sure his plot was driven, and he used history and historical figures to add realism to his plots - Macbeth's blood lust is not particularly Scottish or Iago's venom against Othello particularly Venetian. Shakespeare wasn't interested in condemning a group through the presentation of an individual.

In the courtroom scene in IV.i., Shylock is stripped of all that he has, which adds a tragic aspect to the play. As Shakespeare has used Shylock to represent all that is selfish and inhuman, he must be defeated for order to be returned from chaos (The Great Chain of Being).

Past representations of Shylock on the stage have been as a figure 'grotesque, sinister and ferocious'. Later versions showed Shylock as dignified, tragic. But Shakespeare wouldn't want us to sentimentalise or make Shylock overly grotesque. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare suggests Shylock's power and dignity and more subtly, the way in which his malignity is a defense and not an attack.

Consider the differing opinions regarding Shylock. Further research this pivotal character in the play from the SOCIAL perspective, the GENDER perspective and the CULTURAL/HISTORICAL perspective.

The poet W. H. Auden once penned these words: "Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return." In the case of Shylock, argue your opinion using your paraphrasing of Auden's words as your THESIS. 

Some of the text of this post inspired by Merchant of Venice, Complete Study Edition, edited by Sidney Lamb, 1965 edition. 

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