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Is Shylock a Victim or Villain?

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In The Merchant of Venice how does Shakespeare present both Shylock as both victim and villain? Throughout the play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Shylock reveals many personalities; therefore making him such an emotionally complex and detailed character that shows elements of being both a victim and villain; and to come to my decision to whether Shylock is either of the two, other characters language towards him and his reactions will perceive different ideas from different era’s in time to determine my answer. The first time Shylock is introduced into the play is in Act 1 Scene 3 where Antonio is to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats to allow him to meet his love, Portia, in Belmont. However Antonio’s money is tied up at sea; which is why Shylock is asked to borrow money for him. The first sign of Shylock liking money is when talking to Bassanio about the bond. Also in this era Jews were to make profit when lending out money and Shylock saw this as a perfect opportunity to do so now. Shylock always seems a step ahead of everyone throughout the play as he knows correctly where Antonio’s money is tied up, while talking to Bassanio about Antonio he states: “he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; I understand moreover upon the Rialto, he hath a third at Mexico, a fourth at England and other ventures... ”. This tells us that Shylock can be a greedy person as he seems to know pretty much everything about the bond. Furthermore as Shylock is a very intelligent man; his ideas that Antonio’s boats may not make it back within 3 months gives him an incentive to carry on with the deal. He knows that if he is to accept the bond, he has a very good chance of making a profit, and with different problems such as: “land-thieves and water-thieves” as he knows about in this time, he will go about this bond with confidence and the bound that he has put on Antonio that he truly wants, and one he will get. During the play there is a lot of evidence showing how Shylock is a victim; due to how the characters refer to him. They rarely use his real name and Solanio showing an example here by regularly using: “villain Jew”; “dog Jew” as a reference to Shylock. Antonio is perhaps the guiltiest in Shylock’s eyes for the abuse he causes: “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, /And spet upon my Jewish gabardine”. As a gabardine is a Jewish coat; this is an atrocious sin committed towards Shylock, giving him more reason to hate him. The fact he is described as an animal shows he thinks less of him than he does an animal. Afterwards in the play though in Act 4 scene 1 in the courtroom, Antonio presents powerful imagery showing himself as poor and helpless, as the lamb, and Shylock as the beg devil wolf. This is arguably the most important scene in the play as it shows contrasting ideas to whether he’s a victim or villain. When Antonio says this he’s at his most vulnerable, tied in the chair trapped and says: “You may as well use question with the wolf/ Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb”. This quote really enforcing that Shylock is the villain here, and that Antonio isn’t guilty of anything. Although again presenting that Shylock is a victim is in the courtroom as he isn’t treated correctly or with any respect; as the judge says: “call the Jew into court”. This injustice is displayed throughout the play and this anger must be built inside of him which is why he is so desperate to carry out the bond. In some ways this shows why Shylock can be perceived as a villain; he treats people the same way he gets treated. Within Act 3 scene 1 Shylock arguably says the most important speech throughout. It also perhaps sums up whether Shylock is a victim or villain. It shows great emotion abd really speaks from the heart, and during this time, most Jews would feel the same way Shylock does. He takes great harm from what Antonio has done to him when he states: “ He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses... ”. Following on from saying what Antonio has done to him throughout his life, he asks perhaps the most important question. He says: “and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”. Here Shakespeare has shown great sympathy for Shylock, and rightly so as in most respects he is correct, yet the Elizabethan audience never gave the Jew a chance. Reading the play its as if Jews are completely different to Christians, as if they are aliens. Here Shylock mentions this as he says: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? ... ” . Shylock is basically saying that Jews are humans, not hell-born alienated humans. However Shakespeare has been very clever here; reading the play the first time you could say he has possibly made Shylock look the villain by making the bad points stand out, yet if you look deeper the play shows great sympathy towards the Jew. He has hidden the sympathy towards Shylock so it pleases the crowd. Bringing all this speech together it shows all of Shylock’s anger again, and he expresses this in a very powerful and emotive speech. On the other hand I believe that Shylock can react wrongly, and is too adamant to get his revenge which I think is a harsh revenge. An example of Shylock acting a villain is when losing his daughter Jessica; who then runs off with Lancelet and eventually changing her religion to become a Christian. As parents should unconditionally love their children regardless of what they chose to do with their life; Jessica has committed the ultimate crime against Shylock, to change religion from being Jewish, and religion is supposedly Shylock’s life. This is why Shylock reacted in the way he did as shown in Act 3 scene 1. In this scene Shylock’s says a horrific statement directed at his daughter Jessica; which most of the crowd would consider Shylock acting a villain, including me: “I would my daughter dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear”. Nonetheless to realise that your daughter has run away and for her to be ashamed to be your child: “To be ashamed to be my father’s [Shylock’s] child”; must be a horrible feeling for Shylock. Also if your daughter has stolen half a million ducats; your late wife’s ring, and other precious sentimental items, I’m not overly surprised how he reacted. However for Jessica to say “Our house is hell”; is very strong and for her to say this, Shylock must have done wrong to her. In this side of the story; Shakespeare has made it majorly difficult to decide whether he’s acting a victim or villain here; reading it the first time I thought he was a villain, but after putting myself in Shylock’s position, he shows signs of being what truly a human would be like, how a human would react, and in the Elizabethan era, Jews weren’t necessarily seen as humans. In Elizabethan times when this play would have been shown; the bulk of the crowd were prejudice and would see Shylock as the villain as soon as they knew he was a Jew. In this period of time there were few Jews in Britain, they were considered rare. Anti-Semitism was shown normal throughout Elizabeth’s reign, as they saw Jews as non-believers and greedy. Shakespeare shows in the play Shylock being greedy, as when Jews lend out money for example, they expect interest back. Whereas this is against the Christian religion to do so: so seen as a villain throughout by the crowd. If the play was to be shown in the time of the Holocaust; much more sympathy would have been given to Shylock. As an Elizabethan audience would suddenly conclude that Shylock is a villain, an audience from Britain in the days of the Holocaust would have the greater part saying he’s a victim. The main reason for this is because of the enormous amount of Jews killed in this period, for committing no offence whatsoever. Whereas today’s generation there’s mixed opinion; people would show a blank mind on it; not giving a prejudice idea on it. Shylock shows a great appetite for revenge in the latter parts of the play; and shows that few things will make him break the bond. In Act 4 scene 1, in the courtroom, is where he shows the true desire for his bond. Many people believe Shylock is the average money grabber, thinking money is his life. But throughout this play mainly Antonio has delivered much prejudice abuse aimed at Shylock, so his anger has fuelled up that he now wants nothing other than his bond. Subsequently this shows a sign of true affection for his religion The example of Shylock showing how much he has longed and won’t give up his bond is when he says: If every ducat in six thousand ducats/Were in six parts, and every part a ducat,/I would not draw them: I would have my bond! ”. Following this he won’t give up the bond when Bassanio offers even 10 times the amount, as people see Shylock as obsessed by money more than his religion, this shows how much more religion means to him. In the court scene however Shylock is so revengeful, that he starts to get the lawyer on his side. Portia enters as the lawyer introducing what is to happen to Antonio, asking if he confesses the bond, Antonio confesses, then Portia states what is to happen when she says: “You must prepare your bosom for the knife”, there then does Shylock start sucking up to the lawyer, befriending the lawyer so he gets the opportunity to get what he wants most. After the lawyer states what is to go on Shylock replies: “O noble judge! O excellent young man”. He calls Portia a man yet he doesn’t realise she is cheating him as she’s married to Bassanio. This shows Shylock being a victim as they are all ganging up on him. It seems everybody in this scene is iased towards Antonio, as throughout Gratiano is shouting abuse towards him too. Contrastingly this shows a very evil side to Shylock, firstly sucking up to the lawyer, and also sharpening his knife before he thinks he is to go through with the bond. To conclude this play I believe throughout the play there are many contrasting points to come to a decision to whether Shylock is a victim or villain. The majority of the time I feel he is portrayed a villain, yet the bitterness he displays in parts of the play, is a direct effect from the abuse received from the other characters. Consequently in my opinion he is a victim.
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