Shylock

The question of whether to see Shylock as a villain or a victim has come up frequently in these blog posts as well as during class. The cases are clear: Shylock would say he is a man who has suffered endless ridicule and torment, constantly treated as a second class citizen due mostly to his being a Jew – a classic example of the victim of oppression. The opposing case looks primarily at the actions of Shylock when dealing with Antonio. From this perspective, he’s a man almost entirely without mercy, and thirsty for revenge above all else. Both sides having their strengths, I don’t see these two things as being mutually exclusive.

What I see in Shylock is the epitome of a man driven to his current ruthless state. He’s the criminal who suffered through an abusive childhood, or the shooter driven to commit crimes he would find repulsive in his sober state. It’s key here that Shylock is most likely not in his normal state of mind, and may be by modern standards eligible for commitment to a mental institution. Shylock finds Antonio before his eyes, in shackles, begging for him to hear his plea, and he responds with the frighteningly cold lines,

“I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.

I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.

I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool

To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield

To Christian intercessors. Follow not.

I’ll have no speaking. I’ll have my bond.” (3.3 12-17)

What exactly has Antonio done to Shylock to warrant such treatment? He has spoken badly of him in the past, and he loans money to people gratis, which is bad for Shylock’s business. Clearly there is more at stake here for Shylock. The repetitive, hypnotic tone of Shylock’s voice is that of a maniac – someone with a one track mind whose course has turned toward the satisfying vengeance of all the wrong doing that has been done to him. Antonio is the scapegoat of a man who has finally been pushed over the edge, the “last straw” perhaps being the current situation with his daughter, Jessica.

Essentially, I don’t think the question of whether or not Shylock ought to be sympathized with or villianized needs to be answered, and it very well may not be able to be answered. Like many cruel people throughout history, Shylock is a complex character who falls somewhere in the gray area between victim and evil incarnate. Unfortunately, we don’t get much context for the events in the play. All we really know of Shylock’s past is that he’s been ridiculed by Antonio. In fact, this play is full of characters with moral faults, though none are so clearly shown as Shylock’s. If Shakespeare’s intent was to portray Shylock as a villain, or more absurdly, if Shylock was meant to show the inherent bad character and evil of the common Jew, surely his victims would be more innocent than Antonio, and surely the mistreatment of Shylock and his current familial torment would not have been included.

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4 thoughts on “Shylock

  1. kem1008

    I found this post very interesting–while it is clear that Shylock is the way he is because of past wrongdoings, his lack of compassion makes it difficult to sympathize with him. I enjoy the comparison of Shylock to a criminal who had a rough upbringing. Antonio indeed may have treated him badly, but has Antonio personally wronged Shylock further than any other Christian? Antonio is a business competitor as well–this may be Shylock's reasoning for using Antonio as a target. However, Shylock's vendetta against Antonio is strangely focused and madly harsh. I do believe Shylock has suffered from prejudice, but he is blind to his own actions and way with people. His past formed his current character, and he has subconsciously become a repetitive, obsessive individual.

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  2. Steffi

    I too feel like Shylock falls in the gray area. He is most definitely pushed into his hate filled stance against Antonio and other Christians, but for him to go as far as asking for a pound of flesh… well there must have been some underlying problems to begin with. Jessica leaving to go with some friends of Antonio was the final straw, and he seemed to have had snapped causing him to forcefully go after Antonio for repayment of the bond.

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  3. hannahs

    I really appreciated your view of Shylock as an empathetic gray area villain. Although I do believe that Shylock is the villain of the play there is a powerful feeling that he is the monster that society has made him. There is a great line that Shylock tells Antonio when they are before the Duke that really describes the situation perfectly. Shylock says, "You hath spurned me and called me dog without reason. now beware my fangs." Shylock has been treated like a constant outsider and has endured public humiliation for no other reason then his religion. I agree with everyone else that Jessica was the final breaking point for Shylock's sanity. Here we have a man with nothing left. No family, no community, and now a huge chunk of his business is gone because of his daughters selfishness and still he receives no pity or kind word from anyone. instead he is mocked in the streets for his loss.One can argue that he is the character with the most depth. Although he is the "evil jew" Shylock has motivation for his crime. the rest of the characters (in my opinion anyway) seem shallow and entirely too frivolous.

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  4. Cyrus Mulready

    I'm impressed with how many smart comments there are on the ambiguity in Shylock's character. I also appreciate Steven's point here about Shylock's repetitions and how they give his speech a kind of "manic" character. This is something that an actor can surely play upon in performance, but even on the page there is a kind of rhythmic madness to his words.

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