Throughout the course of history, Jews have been relentlessly persecuted. The English are not an exception, since their history shows that the general English attitude towards Jews during the Elizabethan Era is anti-Semitic. This negative bias towards Jews is apparently clear in Elizabethan literature, including William Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish antagonist in Shakespeares play, is stereotypically portrayed as a villain in accordance to popular prejudice. Thus, Shylock is labeled as a villain because he is a Jew.
This misconception of Jews as being villainous in nature persisted well into the 20th century until the recent mass genocide of Jews in Hitlers Nazi Germany. This appalling incident is the marking point that sensitized the modern reader to Jewish sufferings. Thus, in the eyes of the modern reader, Shylocks characterization as a villain due to his religious convictions is refuted. Still, it is not only sympathy that deems Shylock as a hero but also the injustice he suffers in the hands of the Christian society which includes his converted daughter Jessica.
Shylocks character is defended from its villainous interpretation upon two factors: the sociological, which exonerates Shylock on the basis of environmental pressures, and the racial, which assimilates him to the whole appalling history of anti-Semitism (1). Based on the racial issue, Shylocks character is condemned because he is a Jew. Shylocks role as a villain in the play reflects the general racist prejudices against Jews. Therefore, from his first appearance, Shylock does not have a chance to appeal to the audience.
Thus, to the modern reader, Shylock is a victim of injustice which is representative of his race. By understanding the history behind the creation of Shylock, his tribulations can be assimilated to the general Jewish suffering. Judaism has a long history of persecution. A brief historical analysis of Jewish and Christian relations in England reveals a general anti-Semitic attitude towards the outnumbered Jews. A drastic example of this negative feeling is King Edward the Firsts expulsion of the Jews in 1290 which staged a virtual mass deportation of Jews from England.
For the next three hundred sixty six years, the Jewish population dramatically decreased to a few hundreds until the reinstatement of Jews back into England in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell. Still, anti-Semitic feelings were strong as illustrated by the popularity of William Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice as well as Marlows drama The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare, taking advantage of the publics anti-Jewish feelings, borrowed ideas from his fellow playwright Marlow and designed the character of Shylock. This proved to be advantageous since the play achieved much success and Shakespeare was a major shareholder of his theatrical company (2).
Shakespeares play was popular not only because it was a well written copyright infringement, but it gave the audience what they wanted. Another example of the popularity of Shakespeares play due to its anti-Semitic undertones is the strong protests elicited by the Drury Lane theater when they failed to stage the play during the controversy over the Jew Bill (3). The Jewish Naturalization Bill, or Jew Bill, was simply a slight alteration in the requirements for how foreign Jews could become naturalized British subjects (4).
Even though the bill was a minor amendment, Englishmen were so adamantly obsessed with the idea of hating Jews that the Jew Bill was finally repealed. Thus, Shylocks character was created in an era where religious intolerance alienated Jews from the Christian commonwealth. Based on the sociological factor, Shylock is a sympathetic character because of the environmental pressures in the play. Antonio, Shylocks mortal enemy, is a prime example of the treatment that Shylock constantly receives in the Christian society of Venice.
Antonio holds a personal vendetta towards Shylock simply because he is a Jew; He hath disgraced me. warted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemiesand whats his reason I am a Jew (III. i. 97). Antonio also wrongs Shylock by hurling insults at him such as cutthroat dog, misbeliever, and even goes to the extent of spitting on him (I. iii. 35). This is the unfriendly environment that Shylock is staged in. He has no hope for reconciliation with the Christian community because they feel exactly what Antonio malignantly admits; I am as like to call thee [cur] again, To spet on thee again, to spurn thee, too. If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not as to thy friends. but lend it rather to thine enemy (I. iii. 36-37).
This is the Christian example that Shylock has to live with; Around [Shylock] is the society of Venice, a world of golden youth, richly dressed. but quite insufferable to those outside its own circle, where Shylock is so obviously placed (5). Shylocks character deserves the readers sympathy because he is not only alienated, but he is cursed and spet on as well. Besides his alienation from the Christian society, Shylock draws sympathy from the modern reader through Jessicas betrayal. With one blow, Shylock loses his daughter and a huge portion of his hard earned fortune due to Jessicas sacrilegious defilement of her loyalty to her father.
Jessica is bad and disloyal, unfilial, a thief; frivolous, greedy, without any more conscience than a cat and without even a cats redeeming love of home (6). Alienated from society, the only other person besides Tubal whom Shylock can count on and trust is Jessica, his daughter. Even though Jessica knows that it is wrong to betray her father, she still goes ahead and commits the sin; what heinous sin is it in me to be ashamed to be my fathers child?. I shall end this strife, become a Christian (II. iv. 61). Jessica betrays her father for Lorenzo, her religion for Lorenzo, and her integrity for Lorenzo.
If Shakespeare is to be labeled as being prejudiced against Jews, it has to be for the portrayal of this infidel child. Even though critics argue that Shylock mistreated his daughter, he still loved her; [he was] constantly calling her name [after her betrayal], which tells us of a lonely man! He has looked to her for everything, has tasked her hard, no doubt; he is her jailer, yet he trusts her, and loves her in his extortionate way (7). Thus, in Shylocks state of incredulous disbelief in Jessicas betrayal, the only thing that he can make sense out of is his ducats that have never betrayed his faith.
Therefore, he overemphasizes on his diamond [that] cost [him] two thousand ducats in Frankfurt and his precious, precious jewels not as a sign of greed, but a manifestation of a fathers misery. Furthermore, Jessica strips Shylock from his wifes ring. When Shylock finds out that Jessica bought a monkey with Leahs ring, he exclaims in a tone of anguish; It was my turquoise! I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys (III. i. 101). Jessica and the ring are the only two irreplaceable possessions that Shylock ever had. Yet, by trusting Jessica, he loses both of them.
Not only does his anguish leave room for the readers sympathy, it also shows how Christianity mistreats Shylock. Shylock accepts Antonio and his friends treatment, but when Jessica converts to Christianity by eloping with Lorenzo, Shylocks world becomes vile and spiteful, which leads to revenge. Many critics have argued that what really makes Shylock a villain is the pound of flesh that he wants to exact from Antonio for his forfeiture to the bond. Even though Shakespeare makes it appear merely as a revenge, Shylock has every right to collect what is due to him. Technically, Shylock is conducting business as usual.
Antonio had boldly stated that if he should break the bond, then Shylock has the right with better face [to] exact the penalty (I. iii. 37). Antonio understood perfectly well the consequences of the bond, yet he signed it. What is really unfair for Shylock is the conspiracy set against him at the court. Besides being cheated from claiming his due from Antonio because of trivial technicalities, a conspiracy between the Christians sets a plot for their revenge against him. The Duke, as the figure of authority and the decision maker, consults with Antonio concerning Shylocks punishment.
If they had indeed understood the true meaning of Christian Mercy, then Antonios due to Shylock of three thousand ducats should have been paid and the entire incident forgotten. Yet, Shylock is cheated from his money and is levied with a heavy fine, which Antonio (his mortal enemy), not the Duke dictates; So please the lord the Duke and all the court To quit the fine for one half of his goods, I am content, so he will let me have The other half in use, to render it Upon his death unto the gentleman That lately stole his daughter (IV. i. 169).
What makes Shylock a more sympathetic victim is that Antonio, besides stripping Shylock of his fortunes, taunts him by forcing him to leave his inheritance to the man that stole his daughter. Also, as one of the conditions to pardon his life, Antonio demands that Shylock presently become a Christian (IV. i. 169). This request surpasses any of his previous acts of cruelty because he is asking Shylock to denounce his faith, and therefore his life. Shylock, who has been mistreated by Antonio throughout his life in Venice, is forced to succumb to his enemy. At the verge of justice, Shylock is robbed from his only hope for consolation.
Critical analysis on Shakespeare is not an easy task because no one will never know what he really meant. Shakespeare might or might not have been an anti-Semitic but the evidence clearly shows that The Merchant of Venice has anti-Semitic undertones. Shylocks fate falls concurrent with the disturbing history of Jewish persecution. He is robbed not only of his dignity, but also his daughter, his turquoise ring and human justice. Betrayal drives his vengeance, yet his vengeance is not driven by malignity. Shylock deserves the sympathy of the modern reader because he suffers, because Jews suffered, unjustly.