In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ Shylock is a stereotyped Jewish merchant who is bent on revenge. In this lesson, you’ll have the chance to hear some of Shylock’s monologues, which provide clues to his character and the unusual bargain he strikes with a fellow merchant.
Who is Shylock?
Shylock is one of the main characters in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a Jewish merchant living in a predominantly Christian environment. As the merchant, he exemplifies many negative character traits that we abhor in others and in ourselves: greed, jealousy and vengeance.
Shylock’s life revolves around money. In fact, he has a reputation for charging too much interest on loans.We can find clues to Shylock’s tragic character through his monologues, which reveal his innermost thoughts.
A monologue is a speech an actor or comedian gives to an audience. For example, Shylock shows his true colors in this monologue in Act I of The Merchant of Venice, as he describes his enemy Antonio, a rival merchant:’How like a fawning publican he looks!I hate him for he is a Christian,But more for that in low simplicityHe lends out money gratis and brings downThe rate of usance here with us in Venice.If I can catch him once upon the hip,I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,Even there where merchants most do congregate,On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift,Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,If I forgive him!’In this monologue, Shylock reveals his resentment toward Antonio. First, he states that he hates Antonio for his religious beliefs, or simply because he is not Jewish. Shylock also hates Antonio because he is honest: Antonio doesn’t lend money at interest. As a result, fewer people borrow from Shylock, who does charge interest. Shylock hopes to entrap Antonio when Bassanio, Antonio’s best friend, asks Shylock for a loan that Antonio guarantees.Shylock accuses Antonio of hating Jews, and there is some evidence that Antonio does discriminate.
Antonio has made it clear that he dislikes the way Shylock does business. Shylock swears he will not forgive Antonio for his actions.
Antonio’s best friend, Bassanio, needs money to win the hand of the beautiful Portia, a wealthy heiress. Antonio’s money is tied up in his merchant ships abroad, so he cannot give his friend any money.
Shylock agrees to loan Bassanio 3,000 ducats, or gold coins, for three months, but requires Antonio to sign a notarized agreement. If the loan is not paid on time, Shylock will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio must not feel too worried, because he signs the agreement. Most of us are familiar with the practices of loan sharks, but Shylock takes it even further! He seriously intends to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he default on the loan.
Antonio’s Bad Luck
As the story progresses, Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, leaving him unable to pay the debt. In the meantime, Bassanio succeeds in winning Portia’s hand, partially by passing a test her father devised for her suitors.When Bassanio finds out about Antonio’s hard luck, Portia gives him 6,000 ducats to pay off the loan and save Antonio’s life.
However, Shylock is far more interested in revenge than money. When his own daughter, Jessica, runs off with a Christian named Lorenzo, Shylock is only concerned about the money and jewels she takes with her, and not her safety.
Shylock shows the depth of his resentment toward Antonio in this monologue from Act 3, when Salarino, a fellow merchant, asks him why he would want a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock says:’To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, andhindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted mybargains, cooled my friends, heated mineenemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hathnot a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed withthe same food, hurt with the same weapons, subjectto the same diseases, healed by the same means,warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, asa Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poisonus, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we notrevenge? If we are like you in the rest, we willresemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian,what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christianwrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be byChristian example? Why, revenge. The villany youteach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but Iwill better the instruction.’In his heart of hearts, Shylock believes that Antonio hates him because he is Jewish. Whenever his business deals fail and Antonio’s prosper, Shylock becomes more and more obsessed with revenge. In his monologue, Shylock continues to plead for equality, saying that Jews have eyes, organs and senses and are capable of love. Poignantly, he asks: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’At this point, we can almost sympathize with Shylock.
He is revealing deep inner hurts that no doubt stem from the prejudice he’s experienced, due to his race and religion. Shylock believes his only recourse is revenge, and he blames Christians for teaching him revenge by example. As a result, he cannot be talked out of taking his pound of flesh.Only Portia’s insightful trickery saves Antonio in court.
Disguised as a doctor of the law, she rules that Shylock may have his pound of flesh, but he cannot shed a drop of blood in during the process of taking it. After he’s defeated in court, Shylock loses his fortune to both Antonio and the state, with Antonio’s share going to Jessica and her husband when Shylock dies.
Shylock is the most challenging and dramatic character in The Merchant of Venice. In his role as the antagonist, he engages in adversarial relationships with his fellow merchants and the play’s romantic partners. At different points in the play, we struggle to decide if he’s the tragic victim of anti-Semitism or just a stereotypical villain.
Through his monologues, we find clues to the cruelty and discrimination he endured in the past, which prevents us from believing Shylock is naturally greedy and vindictive. However, by relentlessly seeking his pound of flesh from Antonio, Shylock himself discourages any audience sympathy when he loses both his faith and fortune in court.When the Merchant of Venice reaches its dramatic climax in court, Shylock proves himself the most ironic and tragic figure in the play when he’s forced to convert to Christianity. Not only does he have to give up his faith, but he also has to join the same group of people who have persecuted and shunned him throughout his life.
Shylock is the antagonist and a tragic character in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
A Jewish merchant living in a Christian city, he comes across as greedy, jealous and vengeful. As opposed to his anti-Semitic nemesis and fellow businessman, Antonio, Shylock charges interest on his loans. Shylock hates the well-liked Antonio, and when the latter guarantees a loan for his best friend, Bassanio, he proposes some unusual terms: Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if neither of them can repay the money.When Antonio defaults on the loan, the vengeful Shylock goes to court.
Here, he encounters a wealthy heiress named Portia, who disguises herself as a doctor of law in order to help her beloved Bassanio and his friend, Antonio. Portia agrees to let Shylock takes a pound of flesh from Antonio, as long as he doesn’t spill any of his adversary’s blood. As a result of his impossible situation, Shylock not only loses his court case, but his fortune and faith when he’s forced to become a Christian.
The following are goals you might realize after completing this lesson on Shakespeare’s Shylock:
- Identify Shylock from The Merchant of Venice
- Understand what Shylock’s monologues reveal about his character
- Highlight the conflict between Shylock and Antonio
- Outline the end of the play and explain how Shylock proves to be the most tragic character of the play