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Looking At Shylock: Victim Or Villain?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1969 words Published: 9th May 2017

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In this essay I am going to look at the character of Shylock and I will discuss both sides of the argument of whether Shylock is a victim or a villain. During the play there are many times when he is clearly a villain but also many times where he can be seen as victim.

The second setting is Belmont which is the site of Portia’s estate. Belmont is a city of beauty in which a society of rich, happy, sophisticated and beautiful people live. It is said to be a fairytale world of love and music. In this play it is evident that good things occur in Belmont while less pleasant events occur in Venice.

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At the time this play was written Jews were not considered human beings by the Christians. They were thought of as lower and less valuable in society. In the play Shakespeare has portrayed Jews as having certain jobs for example moneylenders due to their close society. There was much prejudice against Jews and many people treated them differently just because of their religion.

Antonio lends his good friend Bassanio some money so that he can get Portia’s hand in marriage in Belmont. Antonio needs some money for himself so he goes to his archenemy the moneylender, Shylock who is a Jew. At first Shylock asks why he should agree to this bond as Antonio would not do the same for him. Also Antonio had called him “misbeliever, cut-throat dog”. Being called a dog is hurtful and a huge insult and makes Shylock feel like dirt. This quote shows Shylock as a victim because he is seen to be worthless and helpless. In the end they agree to a bond but Shylock has said that if it is not repaid “on such a day, in such a place, such sum or sums as are express’d in the condition” then he is allowed to take “an equal pound” of Antonio’s “fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me”. Bassanio wins the casket and marries Portia in Belmont but when he hears Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and Shylock is therefore allowed to take his pound of flesh he tells Portia what has happened and goes back to Venice to help his friend. Portia and Nerissa dress as men and Portia wins the court scene. This means Antonio’s life is spared and Shylock is forced to change religion, give half his money to the general state and half to Antonio who decided to save it for Jessica, Shylock’s daughter until she comes of age to need it. Shylock is left with nothing and Bassanio travels back to Belmont with Portia.

Throughout the play we see different aspects of the character of Shylock from being a villain when he is making and trying to take the bond to being a victim when his daughter leaves him with his money and some of his valuable possessions.

The term villain in the Oxford English dictionary is a person who is guilty or capable of a crime or wickedness / a wrongdoer or a character in a novel or a play whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot. Also the Oxford English dictionary definition or a victim is a person harmed, injured or killed as a result of a crime or accident, a person who is tricked or duped (deceived), or an animal or person killed as a religious sacrifice.

Antonio is a Christian and Shylock is a Jew and in the sixteenth century when it was written and set Jews were considered “misbelievers” by the Christians based on their religious views. Throughout the play the Christians treated the Jewish community with very little respect. This was mainly because the nature of money lending (run mainly by the Jews in Elizabethan times) meant that successful Jewish families held a certain level of influence over the Christians. This left a divide between the two religions. This shows that Shylock is being made the victim of anti-Semitism but he himself has not done anything to warrant this treatment from the Antonio and other Christians.

At the beginning of the play Antonio treated Shylock like a lower class citizen, calling him “misbeliever, cut-throat dog”. Also “spit upon my Jewish gaberdine” which is said by Shylock after Antonio has passed him in the street during act 1 scene 3 and spat onto his face. Antonio spat into his face just because he was a Jew and this is why the grudge between them is held. Antonio feels that because he is a Christian he is higher up in society and can treat the Jews including Shylock as worthless and at his feet. The word “spat” shows that Antonio regards Shylock as a lower class citizen and does not treat his with any respect because spitting is hugely undermining and shows no respect for the person. The main reason Antonio behaves in this way to Shylock is due to his religion. Despite Antonio being prejudiced against Shylock for his religion it is also the same in reverse. As Antonio first arrives before they have made the bond Shylock mutters to himself “how like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian” showing that he is also prejudiced again Antonio due to religion though Shylock has not pursued that prejudice to discriminate against his enemy unlike the spitting and name calling from Antonio.

In act 1 scene 3 the bond is being made between Antonio and Shylock. Antonio is in desperate need of money as all his ships are out at sea so he has to go to the moneylender Shylock, the Jew who is his worst enemy. Shylock has always wanted revenge on Antonio “if I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” so he takes this opportunity by using the bond. “feed fat” shows use of personification because it indicates the size of this grudge Shylock has on Antonio and the hatred and desire for revenge. This quote makes it sound like it has become a living thing that needs feeding. It also shows the villainous side of Shylock because it shows that he has been looking for a way to catch Antonio out. He says ” if you repay me not on such a day, in such a place, such sum or sums as are express’d in the condition, let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and take in what part of your body pleaseth me.” This shows that Shylock is contemplating manslaughter in his mind as part of his plot to get his revenge for all the wrongs that have been taken out on him. Antonio knows that he has no other options than this so he decides to agree to this bond. I think that Antonio also thinks that either his ships will come in time or if Bassanio wins Portia’s hand in marriage then she has enough money that would be enough to settle this bond.

This shows an act of villainy by Shylock as he has added murder into the bond and tricked Antonio into this plan. However Shylock has been made a villain the whole of his life because of his religion and even though this is a villainous act I feel that this is a man who has been pushed to his limits and that he would not do it otherwise.

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Another point is that Shylock’s daughter Jessica decided to run away to marry a Christian, betraying her father and religion in the process. This angered Shylock and to add insult to injury she left with a lot of Shylock’s money. She even stole the ring from his dead wife, which held great sentimental value to him. This shows that he is being made a victim by his own daughter, the only family he has left. He says “stolen by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl!” which shows that he is extremely angry and possibly wants the courts to go after his daughter this shows that maybe he misses his material goods for example his ducats and riches more than his own daughter which is shown in the quote “She hath the stones upon her and the ducats!”. Although it seems that he values his ducats more than his daughter I think that he may have over reacted but everybody would be just the same if their daughter were to betray them so much.

Within the court scene Shylock demands his pound of flesh. When Shylock was creating the bond it was very different to actually taking the bond out. Legal wise this could be seen as illegal because it an attempt at manslaughter, but on the other hand it could be seen as legal because Antonio has agreed to this bond and also it is being taken out within the court. This shows Shylock was serious about the attempt on Antonio’s life. Even with an offer of twice the sum of the money but Shylock refused even “ten times o’er” showing that he is intent on taking Antonio’s life and this is very villainous but he is doing this through the bond Antonio has agreed to and the court.

In the court scene Shylock is put in his place by a woman (Portia). Shylock does not know this because Portia has dressed as a doctor of law to be allowed to enter the court due to the fact that women were not considered worthy of being in the courts and having decent jobs. If anyone had known that Shylock was being put into his place by a woman this would have been terrible and humiliating because in society the men are considered more important and worthy and women are supposed to keep quiet. In the sixteenth century when the play was set it was considered that women were much lower that the males in society.

At the end of the court scene Shylock was forced to change religion from Jewish to Christianity. This meant that he was no longer part of the Jewish community. As Jewish religion is based on such a closely connected society Shylock could no longer be able to do his job as a moneylender because he was no longer connected with all the other Jews.

At the end of the play Shylock no longer had a home or anything else so he decided that he would rather die than have to live as a Christian with nothing and have to suffer all the grief and pain.

In my opinion I feel that this is a little overboard and that the punishment does not fit the crime because even though he was thinking of taking Antonio’s life he didn’t cause any damage in the end so he should not have the punishment of taking another persons life because the crime he was punished with was not pursued.

From the arguments put forward you can see that Shylock is clearly after revenge and he wishes to take Antonio’s life. In my opinion even though Shylock is a villain for wanting manslaughter I feel that he is all in all the victim because all his life he has been persecuted for being a Jew even though he himself has not done anything to merit this lifetime of punishment and he only wanted and trying to get his pay back. I do not think that he would have tried to commit manslaughter if he had not been pushed off the edge in the past by Christians and Antonio in particular. I feel that the punishment seems out of proportion with the crime because he never ended up doing anything. If Shylock had plunged the knife into Antonio’s chest for his pound of flesh then I feel that this punishment would fit the crime but instead they are punishing Shylock for only thinking about manslaughter. Also being put in his place unknowingly by Portia adds to making him the victim as men are supposed to be higher in society so this act of unknowing harshness shows him in the light of being the victim. Also having all his treasures and especially his wife’s ring being disposed of and taken by his only remaining family member who he thought was loyal to him creates high emotions for Shylock. I have learn a lot more about the book while writing this essay and I now have a much clearer understanding of the plot. I think that Shylock is a victim which I have shown in the paragraph above.


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