A Shylock character analysis can tell us a lot about The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender is the villain of the play and the audience response depends on how he is portrayed in performance.
An actor will hopefully be able to extract sympathy for Shylock from the audience, despite his vengeful bloodthirsty and greedy proclivities.
Shylock the Jew
His position as a Jew is made much of in the play and in Shakespeare's Britain some might argue, that this would have positioned him as a baddy, however, the Christian characters in the play are also open to criticism and as such Shakespeare is not necessarily judging him for his religious belief but demonstrating intolerance in both religions. Shylock refuses to eat with the Christians:
Yes, to smell pork, to eat of the habitation which your prophet the Nazerite conjured the devil into! I will buy with you, sell with you, talk to you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.
He also questions the Christians for their treatment of others:
… what these Christians are, Whose own hard dealings teaches them to suspect the thoughts of others!
Could Shakespeare be commenting here on the way Christians converted the world to their religion or on the way that they treat other religions?
Having said this, there are a lot of insults leveled at Shylock merely based on his being a Jew, many suggesting that he is akin to the devil:
A modern audience may find these lines insulting. A modern audience would surely consider his religion to be of no consequence in terms of his status as a villain, he could be considered a reprehensible character who also happens to be a Jewish man. Must Jessica convert to Christianity in order to be accepted by Lorenzo and his friends? This is the implication.
That the Christian characters are considered the goodies in this narrative and the Jewish character the baddy of the piece, suggests some judgment against being Jewish. However, Shylock is permitted to give as good as he gets against Christianity and is able to level similar insults as he receives.
Shylock the Victim
To an extent, we feel sorry for Shylock's victimization based solely on his Jewishness. Apart from Jessica who converts to Christianity, he is the only Jewish character and it feels he is somewhat ganged up on by all of the other characters. Had he just have been 'Shylock' without the religion, almost certainly one could argue a modern audience would have less sympathy for him? As a result of this assumption, would Shakespeare's audience have had less sympathy for him because of his status as a Jew?
Shylock the Villain?
Shylock's position as a villain per se is possible to debate.
Shylock is sticking to his bond to his word. He is true to his own code of conduct. Antonio signed that bond and promised that money, Shylock has been wronged; he has had his money stolen from him by his daughter and Lorenzo. However, Shylock is offered three times his money back and he still demands his pound of flesh; this moves him into the realms of villainy. It depends on his portrayal as to how much an audience has sympathy for his position and character as to how much he is judged at the end of the play.
He is certainly left at the end of the play with very little to his name, although at least he is able to keep his property until his death. I think it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy for Shylock as all the characters celebrate at the end while he is all alone. It would be interesting to revisit Shylock in the years following and find out what he did next.
- “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (Act 1 Scene 3)
- “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation;” (Act 2 Scene 2)