Merchant Of Venice: Shylock the Antagonist?


In The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, there appears
Shylock. He is a Jew, that much we are told in the cast list.
But, as the play unfolds Shylock is seen to be the villian. He is
protrayed as being cold, unbending, and evil. But is he? Is
Shylock really the antagonist in this play or can he also be
viewed as persecuted individual who resorts to revenge only after
he has been pushed too far.

To fully understand the character of Shylock we must first look at
Elizabeathen attitudes towards Jews. In the sixteenth century
Jews were rarely if ever seen in England. In the Middle Ages Jews
had fled to England to escape persecution in France under the
Normans. They were granted charter in England by Henry I in
return for a percentage of their profits from trade and
moneylending. It is here that the stereotype of Jews lending
money was started. Because of the tariffs placed on them by the
crown Jews took to charging high interest rates to secure profits
for 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 the
seventeenth century. (Lippman 3-4) Jews were also viewed as devils
by Elizabeathan audiences. Old stories portrayed them as "blood-
thirsty murders" that poisoned wells and killed Christian children
for their bizarre Passover ritu! als. (Stirling 2:1) These were
the stereotypes which Shakespeare\'s audience held in regard to
Jews. Shakespeare himself had never seen a Jew but he goes to
great lengths to humanize Shylock even while perpetuating the
stereotype.

In Act 1:3, before Shylock ever says a word to Antonio, he lets
the audience know in an aside that he hates Antonio. He hates him
for having hindered him in business and for having humiliated him
in public by spitting on him and calling him names such as "dog"
and "cutthroat Jew". Shylock tells the audience he hopes to exact
revenge on Antonio both for his own humiliation and for the
persecution that the Jews have long suffered at the hands of the
Christians. I hate him for he is a Christian;. . . If I can catch
him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear
him.He hates our sacred nation . . . Curs‚d be my tribe if I
forgive him (I,iii,40-49) Shylock then tells Antonio that he wants
to be friends with him and will conclude the bond for a pound of
flesh as a "merry sport." In the second act, however, he still
seems to bear a deep grudge against the Christians, for he tells
Jessica that he is going in hate and not in friendship to dine
with them. "But yet I\'ll go in hate to feed upon the prodigal
Christian. . . .I am right loath to go." (II,v,14-16) After
Jessica\'s elopment, Shylock suspects Bassanio and Antonio of
abetting her escape, and this suspicion increases Shylock\'s
animosity toward Antonio. We learn later in the play that Antonio
has personally rescued a number of debtors from Shylock\'s bonds
when Antonio says "I oft delievered from his forfeitures; Many
that have made moan to me." (III,iii,23-24) We also discover that
Shylock cannot or will not explain his reasons for demanding
Antonio\'s flesh. "But say it is my humor," is all the reason he
is 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 Jew
eyes": "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? I
am a Jew." (III,i,49-54) (Lippman 2)

Shylock himself is an alien in a society geared towards
Christians. His clothes, customs and race make him an object of
scorn in Venetian society. We as a modern audience are bound to
feel some sympathy for him. When Jessica runs away from home we
realized that Shylock\'s most trusted prop has failed him, he
placed absolute confidence in his daughter with his house and
wealth. The fact that he cries out for his ducats as well as his
daughter should not obscure the sense of keen personal loss he
feels. " I say my daughter is my own flesh and blood." (III,i,34)
We also see this when Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica has traded
one of his rings for a monkey. Shylock\'s lamentation for his lost
turquoise ring that he had "of Leah when I was a batchelor,"