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''The Merchant of Venice'' is one of Shakespeare's most well known comedies and was written in the late 1590's. The play is set mainly in Venice, which at the time was the city of trade, which Shakespeare's audience would have found exotic. At this time, Jews were treated very badly and were frequently excluded by their community. The themes of the play are revenge, mercy, and justice. Shylock, with Antonio is the major character in the play, at times he is referred to as a villain and sometimes a victim. The dictionary defines a villain as '' a cruelly malicious person'' and a victim as '' a person who is deceived or cheated''. However the question still remains: Shylock victim or villain?
Shylock does not seem to appear at the start of the play for one key reason I believe, which is Shakespeare wanted the audience to have Shylock enter on stage by himself for dramatic effect. Shylock's first appearance is in Act 1 Scene 3, which is set in Venice, which at the time was the place of commerce at the time. Shylock is rather teasing as he makes Bassanio sweat for a simple one-word answer.
''Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound''
''Three thousand ducats: I think I may take this bond''
Evidently, Shylock is repetitive and he is controlling the dialogue. The audience would not enjoy Shylock attaining power especially over Bassanio , who is a Christian. The word ''bond'' is a key word used consistently through the play especially by Shylock. The word bond is powerful language of the law and portrays Shylock as a dignified human being. Shakespeare's intention here is to show how Shylock constantly wants to be in control, but as we see later in the play this is not always the case.
Shylock admittedly says he hates Christians, which is racist.
''I hate him for he is Christian''
Clearly, this language shows that Shylock is prejudiced and this quotation would shock the contemporary audience, as they would be predominantly Christian. The way this phrase is assembled is very interesting and typical of Shakespeare. Shakespeare has cleverly written this sentence so that every word ,bar Christian has one syllable whereas the word Christian has two. This stresses the Christian part of the sentence so it will remain in the audience's minds and they will be not pleased at Shylock.
Furthermore, whenever Shylock talks to either Bassanio or Antonio, he rarely uses gracious language.''Curs'd'', has unpleasant connotations which show the audience that Shylock does not have any respect. Shylock's bond has an extreme condition to it:
''for an equal pound of your fair flesh''
This shows Shylock wants justice if his money is not repaid. The language is simple, but effective. Shakespeare uses alliteration to make the point ''fair flesh'' stand. This phrase would cause high dramatic tension.
Shylock has been called a dog, an insult for a Jew:
''....cut throat dog''
At this time people believed in the chain of being which was a hierarchy of beings. Dogs as animals were at the bottom of this chain so this insult is even worse. Unfortunately, at the time of the play it was common for Jewish people to be insulted in this way. The imagery is revolting. A ''cut throat dog'' suggests death and execution which would make the audience shiver.
Amazingly, in Act 2 Scene 2 we see an insight into Shylock's domestic life from his servant Lancelot.
''the Jew is the very devil incarnation''
Shakespeare has cleverly included Lancelot in this scene so the audience can get a perspective of what Shylock the man is really like. Therefore, when he calls Shylock a devil the audience knows that Lancelot does not have any respect for him. The word devil adds to the running motif in the play as Shylock is always referred to as devil- like. In context Lancelot should respect his master not deceive him. Loyalty is a big theme of the play and there is none between these two people.
Lancelot wants to run away from Shylock, his master.
''I will run as far as God has any ground''
Which shows deep hatred for Shylock, and leaves believing that Lancelot is running away because Shylock is treating him badly
In Act 2 Scene 3, we see Shylock's daughter Jessica. Jessica does not like her own house:
''Our house is hell''
Hell is a strong word in the play and this image of Shylock recurs throughout it. This language is monosyllabic which shows Jessica's lack of happiness. The audience would feel sympathetic for Jessica as she is alone with Shylock who in the eyes of the audience is portrayed as a monster. Shylock's purpose here is to show the audience what Shylock's own blood and flesh think of him, evidently, we see that his daughter has deep loathing for him. What makes this more convincing s the fact that Jessica is saying this because she has known Shylock her whole life and she still hates him.
In addition in the nest scene Lorenzo compares Shylock to his daughter an evidently shows more lovingness towards Jessica and disrespect to Shylock.
''If e'r the Jew her father come to heaven, it will be for his gentle daughter's sake''
We can see here how there is a contrast in the language used when referring to Jessica and Shylock. Firstly Lorenzo addresses Shylock as ''Jew' which is prejudiced , whereas he uses words such as ''heaven'' and ''gentle'' to portray Jessica. Shakespeare has cleverly carried out this contrast for effect because he wanted to make it clear to the audience who the villain was.
Shylock is malevolent to his servant Lancelot and extremely commanding:
'' I do not bid thee call''
''Do as I bid''
The way that Shylock said this was in a mean manner and is harsh towards Lancelot. In both cases the language is monosyllabic which shows the audience that Shylock believes he has power over everyone. This is because Shylock knows that he only has to say merely a few words and everyone will respect him.
At the end of Act 2 Scene 5 we see Jessica privately too herself mutter the controversial truth:
''Farewell, and if my fortune be not cross'd I have a father, you a daughter lost''
This is a very contentious phrase in the play. At this stage we feel extremely sympathetic for Shylock as he does not know that he is going to lose his daughter. This is extremely dramatically ironic. Shakespeare's language here is purposeful as he has used rhyming couplets for dramatic effect and also to stress the importance of these words.
In Act 2 Scene 6 we see a different side of Jessica. Jessica when running away is very deceitful and takes all her dad's wealth.
'' Here, catch this casket, it is worth three pains''
This is tremendously emotional for the audience because hear they are seeing a daughter running away from home and they know that regardless of what has happened that Shylock will be upset and this is upsetting thinking about it. In addition, Jessica is taking all Shylock's wealth and money is a big theme of the play, which Shakespeare exploits here.
When Solanio finds outs that Shylock has lost his daughter and his money in Act 2 Scene 8 he teases Shylock but not in front of his face:
''My ducats and my daughter''
The structure of this sentence is very cleverly assembled. Firstly Shakespeare has used alliteration so the audience can clearly hear the words especially ''daughter'' and ''ducats'' as they are important here. I also noticed when depicting this was the arrangement of the words and I saw that the word ''ducats'' is before ''daughter''. So this could infer how he likes his money more than his daughter. The contemporary audience would sympathise with Shylock as he is being mocked behind his back.
Act 3 Scene 1 was set in Venice, which was the place of business. Shylock is in the street by himself , whereas Solanio and Solario are together. This adds to Shylock's vulnerability as he is alone with no friends and friendship is a vital theme of the play.
Salarino says to Shylock how different he is compared to his daughter:
''Jet and Ivory''
Shakespeare uses an oxymoron to portray the contrast between them, which creates images in the audience's heads which some may find funny an others ironic. This would build up tension between the two characters.
Shylock repeats himself for revenge again an again and has many horrific ideas such as the ''pound of flesh''. Shylock also does not like how there is a big difference between Jews and Christains.
'If you prick us do we not bleed''
Shylock has a lot of anger in him and has expressed himself very emotionally. Shylock's speech is in prose which makes it clear and from the heart. He is arguing for common humanity as he feels alienated and vulnerable. Here at the end of the speech I believe the audience would have been silenced as Shylock touches on some sensitive topics.
After his speech Shylock becomes intrigued when he hears news that Antonio's ships are sinking , ''I'll torture him''. Torture is a strong word and very horrific, which shows deep desire to get revenge on Antonio.
In Act 3 Scene 3, Antonio has been arrested. Shylock takes the image of a dog and turns it around to the Christians. '' I am dog beware my fangs'', here is evidence of how bitter Shylock has become and they manner in which he would say it would be sarcastic.
Act 4 Scene 1 is the central and most dramatic part of the play where both Shylock and Antonio settle their differences in a courtroom.
The Duke shows deep emotion for Antonio, he refers to Antonio as ''thee''. The fact that the Duke addresses him as ''thee'' , is quite significant as ''thee'' is used intimately. When Shylock first enters the room he is being questioned. ''Shylock the world thinks'', this shows how they are trying to isolate Shylock.
In the courtroom when Shylock replies he uses quite vengeful and powerful language and he uses a lot of language associated with animals. ''forfeit'', ''sworn'', ''cat'' and ''rat''. These words are significant because they show his passion for revenge. The animal imagery is crude and quite vermin and makes Shylock seem strange in front of the audience.
Antonio becomes emotional, when he knows the end is near:
''you may as well do anything most hard''
This is a piece of rhetoric stressing the future of his cause. The atmosphere at a hush Shakespeare uses hyperbolic language to express emotional sadness. The fact that Antonio is nearing death makes the audience feel for him as his life is on the line.
Portia pleads powerfully in her speech and uses two types of images to persuade him religious and monarchy. 'God'', ''mercy'' and ''sceptred''. This speech is the turning point and the audience may judge Shylock as a victim or villain on the basis of this speech. This is a powerful monologue for the audience who want salvation. The speech is noble densely packed with images. However some of the speech is not logical as it is about Christianity, but Shylock is a Jew. Nevertheless, the whole audience would have been taken away by this speech. Shylock's response to this was extremely important. This is why Shakespeare uses unrhymed iambic pentameter to stress the significance of this.
Further on in the Act Shylock is really eager, that he has bought his own scales to measure the pound of flesh, the audience would see this as quite peculiar and sickening.
When Antonio is free to go, he makes the request for Shylock to give up his faith as a Jew. The contemporary audience, who are mainly Christian, would be happy but telling Shylock to change his faith would seem unfair to some. The last words of Shylock are really quite heartbreaking
''I pray you give me''
These words suggest that Shylock is a beaten man , he has lost everything and the audience would take into consideration what he has done throughout the play and make their own judgements to whether he is a victim or villain.