But, as the play unfolds Shylock is seen to be the villian. He isprotrayed as being cold, unbending, and evil. But is he? IsShylock really the antagonist in this play or can he also beviewed as persecuted individual who resorts to revenge only afterhe has been pushed too far. To fully understand the character of Shylock we must first look atElizabeathen attitudes towards Jews. In the sixteenth centuryJews were rarely if ever seen in England.
In the Middle Ages Jewshad fled to England to escape persecution in France under theNormans. They were granted charter in England by Henry I inreturn for a percentage of their profits from trade andmoneylending. It is here that the stereotype of Jews lendingmoney was started. Because of the tariffs placed on them by thecrown Jews took to charging high interest rates to secure profitsfor themselves.
Here we see echos of Shylock with his usury. Finally the Jews were ordered out of England in 1254 by Edward I. They did not return to England until the later half of theseventeenth century. (Lippman 3-4) Jews were also viewed as devilsby Elizabeathan audiences. Old stories portrayed them as “blood-thirsty murders” that poisoned wells and killed Christian childrenfor their bizarre Passover ritu! als. (Stirling 2:1)These werethe stereotypes which Shakespeare’s audience held in regard toJews.
Shakespeare himself had never seen a Jew but he goes togreat lengths to humanize Shylock even while perpetuating thestereotype. In Act 1:3, before Shylock ever says a word to Antonio, he letsthe audience know in an aside that he hates Antonio. He hates himfor having hindered him in business and for having humiliated himin public by spitting on him and calling him names such as “dog”and “cutthroat Jew”. Shylock tells the audience he hopes to exactrevenge on Antonio both for his own humiliation and for thepersecution that the Jews have long suffered at the hands of theChristians. I hate him for he is a Christian;. .
. If I can catchhim once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bearhim. He hates our sacred nation . . . Curs?d be my tribe if Iforgive him (I,iii,40-49) Shylock then tells Antonio that he wantsto be friends with him and will conclude the bond for a pound offlesh as a “merry sport.
” In the second act, however, he stillseems to bear a deep grudge against the Christians, for he tellsJessica that he is going in hate and not in friendship to dinewith them. “But yet I’ll go in hate to feed upon the prodigalChristian. . . .
I am right loath to go. ” (II,v,14-16) AfterJessica’s elopment, Shylock suspects Bassanio and Antonio ofabetting her escape, and this suspicion increases Shylock’sanimosity toward Antonio. We learn later in the play that Antoniohas personally rescued a number of debtors from Shylock’s bondswhen Antonio says “I oft delievered from his forfeitures; Manythat have made moan to me. ” (III,iii,23-24) We also discover thatShylock cannot or will not explain his reasons for demandingAntonio’s flesh. “But say it is my humor,” is all the reason heis able to show. The sum of Shylock’s motives for hatred is gi!ven in the rarely quoted lines b efore the famous “Hath not a Jeweyes”: “He hath disgraced me, and hind’red me half a million;laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, thwarted my bargains,cooled my friends, heated mine enemies_and what’s his reason? Iam a Jew.
” (III,i,49-54) (Lippman 2)Shylock himself is an alien in a society geared towardsChristians. His clothes, customs and race make him an object ofscorn in Venetian society. We as a modern audience are bound tofeel some sympathy for him. When Jessica runs away from home werealized that Shylock’s most trusted prop has failed him, heplaced absolute confidence in his daughter with his house andwealth.
The fact that he cries out for his ducats as well as hisdaughter should not obscure the sense of keen personal loss hefeels. ” I say my daughter is my own flesh and blood. ” (III,i,34)We also see this when Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica has tradedone of his rings for a monkey. Shylock’s lamentation for his lostturquoise ring that he had “of Leah when I was a batchelor,” showsus that indeed he does have sentimentality in him and he wouldn’thave parted with that ring “for a wilderness of monkeys. “(III,i,110-113) Here Shakespeare attaches a small snippet ofhumanity to a character seen as i! nhuman for the most part. Howev er, our sympathy for Shylock does not reach its heighthuntil the famous speech: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 andcooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? (III,i,54-59)At this point in the play it seems that Shylock is no differentfrom any other man except for the fact that his religion has madehim in outcast from society.
Our understanding of this fact doesnot lessen the horror we feel at his cruelty towards Antonio, butwe are able to remember that the passion for revenge is a commonhuman failing and not the unique characteristics of a ferociousand inhuman monster as the Elizabeathans believed. (Lippman 3)