The Vilification of Shylock


As Shakespeare’s plays have not decreased in status in the canon of English literature, their themes and characters have achieved a timeless quality that allows them to be reexamined repeatedly over time. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, religious conflict, and consequently the portrayal of Jews, is the central theme and, as the play ages, more voices are added to its discussion. The portrayal of Jews in the play is questionable, and the conflict between Shylock and Antonio, which is essentially religious, is multidimensional. As Fijn Van Draat points out, “Until Cromwell revokes the old decree, no Jew is seen in England […] It is more than probable, therefore, that neither Marlowe nor Shakespeare, who made a Jew the leading character in one of their tragedies, had ever seen one in the flesh” (Van Draat 199). Therefore, both Shakespeare and his audience have a set of preconceptions regarding the nature of Jews, which determines not only how Shylock is defined, but also the outcome of his actions, and eventually his fate. While Shylock is not a heroic figure, his role as the villain is supported solely upon his religion, and as the portrayal of Jews is conditioned by the social and political circumstances of England at the time, it prevents the play from being faithful to the true nature of its characters.

Shylock and his vengeful attitude are at the center of the play, yet his character is based on stereotypical ideas of Jews in England at the time. His identity as a Jew is what defines every aspect of his character and as Emma Smith points out:

The Merchant of Venice was first registered in the Stationers’ Register in July 1598 as ‘the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Iewe of Venyce,’ and the title page of its first printed edition of 1600 promised ‘the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Iewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his flesh.’ The word ‘Jew’ and its cognates are heard more than seventy times in the play, and in print in both quarto and Folio, Shylock’s given name is sometimes replaced with the identity ‘Jew’ in stage directions and speech prefixes.
— Emma Smith, p. 188

This type of portrayal makes him the de facto villain of the play, and in turn makes Antonio the hero. Antonio, however, while actively assuming the role of the hero by risking his life to help Bassanio in his quest, shows just as much hatred towards Jews as Shylock towards Christians. The discrimination of Jews in the play is mirrored perfectly by the audience when they side with Antonio, despite him exhibiting the same villainous traits as Shylock. Here's how Chris Jeffery interprets the dynamic between Shylock and Antonio: “ The Gentiles scoff at the Jew’s grief; and they feel no qualms about using him to their own ends while spitting on him; and then, when he tries to spit back, about destroying him. Having beaten him, they force him to join them” (Jeffery 37). This reading underlines the complexity of Shylock’s character and his attitude towards Antonio.

In contrast with Shakespearean audiences, a contemporary reader of the play would consider Shylock’s role based on his actions rather than his religious identity. Is Shylock a villain, or a victim? In answering this question that has been raised about The Merchant of Venice often in the past, two main factors come into play: his actions, and his words. Per the latter, it is worth mentioning two of his speeches, one from the first act, and one from the third act. When Antonio goes to him with Bassanio, he says: “I hate him for he is a Christian […] He hates our sacred nation […] Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him!” (Merch. 1.3.34 – 43). While his hatred is justified by the discrimination of Jews in Venice, and the insults he personally suffered, his last statement encapsulates his character throughout the play. He is both a victim of discrimination, and a villain for being unforgiving. Different scenes portray him in either one of those roles. His other speech is of course the famous ‘Hath not a Jew’ monologue (Merch. 3.1.42 – 57). Here another element of his character, and of the play, is witnessed; the use of rhetoric. Shylock displays his skills in using language to his advantage, and even though this particular speech might sway the contemporary readers away from their perception of Shylock as a villain because of his equality and human rights approach, the Shakespearean audience might have seen it as an act of evil cunning. Thus, Shylock would be seen as the deceitful, manipulative Jew who is on a revenge path to kill Antonio.

In employing his considerable rhetorical skill in the service of revenge, Shylock makes only two of the three requisite appeals to his audience. He appeals to their reason (logos) and to their feelings (pathos), but he does not appeal to their conŽdence in his character as a man of good will (ethos).
— Jane Freeman, p. 171

Rhetoric gains an even greater role in the play during the first scene of the fourth act, where Shylock is outwitted by Portia. She uses the wording of his own bond against him and only at this point Shylock’s determination and stubbornness fades in face of the consequences of his actions. Again, he is treated as an outsider, and further discriminated against. When Portia says “The Jew shall have all justice” (Merch. 4.1.317), she is referring to the Venetian law, which she quotes:

If be proven against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half of his goods, the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state
— Portia, (Merch. 4.1.345 – 350)

In this way, the play for Shylock ends where it began: he is humiliated by the Christians, mocked by Gratiano, and forced to renounce his religion. 

Although it is hard in a contemporary reading to determine the nature of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, his role as the villain as perceived by the Shakespearean audience is based merely on the abstract preconceptions about Jews at the time. The audience needed Shylock to be the villain, and he is defeated in the end by means of a linguistic technicality. As Jeffery points out when referring to a 2001 production: “Everyone on stage is against him, even his own daughter, yet for no good reason that an audience can see. If he is shown as angry and vengeful, he is also shown to have good cause. His final, defeated exit seems designed to evoke sympathy rather than glee. Should we really feel pleased to see this man destroyed? Does he receive justice in the Venetian court?” (Jeffery 37). His true crime is acting as if he is equal to the Christians in a state of religious oppression and inequality. His intentions, which can be seen as merely revenge, or a fight for equality in the shape of revenge, is best  stated in his aforementioned monologue, when he says:

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?
Why, revenge!
The villainy you teach me I will execute
— Shylock, (Merch. 3.1.53 – 56)

If Shylock is indeed the villain, it was the Christians who made him.