“The Merchant of Venice”: Is Shylock a Victim or Villian?

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The play I have been studying is The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. It is a drama that takes place in the late 1590s and involves two cities, Venice and Belmont. The central theme revolves around usury and centers on the relationship between Antonio, a Christian merchant from Venice, and Shylock, a wealthy Jewish man. During this period, Shylock faces religious rivalry. Bassanio, a friend of Antonio’s, asks him for a loan, which Antonio agrees to despite needing to borrow money himself due to his investments being tied up in ships and trading ventures.

Bassanio desires the money in order to travel to Belmont and propose to his love, Portia, who is a wealthy and attractive heiress. Although Shylock and Antonio are already enemies, Shylock agrees to lend 3000 ducats with Antonio’s bond. Shylock then proposes a “fake” bond, which entails a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan is not repaid within three months. To Bassanio’s dismay, Antonio accepts this condition. This essay will explore whether Shylock should be seen as a villain or a victim. One argument supporting Shylock as a villain is his reaction upon hearing news of one of Antonio’s ships crashing on the rocks, which is almost celebratory.

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In this passage, Shylock’s joy at Antonio’s potential loss of money is conveyed. Shylock believes that he will ultimately win the bond and begins formulating plans for Antonio’s punishment. “I am very glad of it, I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him. I am glad of it.” (Act 3, Scene 1) By expressing these thoughts, Shylock reveals his darker side and demonstrates his delight at his bond being carried out successfully, ultimately leading to Antonio’s downfall. Shakespeare aims to showcase Shylock’s profound hatred for Antonio and his eagerness to exact revenge by obtaining ‘his’ pound of flesh. Another indication that Shylock is a villain can be found in Act 4, Scene 1.

Shylock clearly states that he no longer desires the repayment of Bassanio’s debt of 3000 ducats or Bassanio’s offer of 6000 ducats. Instead, he prefers to take a pound of flesh from Antonio, as he now considers Antonio to be the cause of all his troubles. This confirms his intention to make Antonio suffer the consequences. Shylock says, “If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them, I would have my bond.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

In this act, Shakespeare portrays the character of Shylock as having the opportunity to release Antonio and receive a larger sum of money than was originally agreed upon in their bond. The play emphasizes the significance of a bond being considered an oath that should be upheld until the very end, particularly in the case of this bond between a Christian and a Jew. Shylock’s decision will determine Antonio’s fate, and his choice is unambiguous. At present, Shylock is consumed by hatred and believes that extracting flesh from Antonio will satisfy his thirst for revenge. Another indication of Shylock’s villainous nature is when Antonio approaches him for the money. Shylock examines Antonio’s creditworthiness to reassure himself that he will be repaid: “Supply your present wants, and take no doit of usance for my moneys- and you’ll not hear me.” (Act 1, Scene 3)

Shylock agrees to lend a loan without charging any interest in a seemingly generous act. Both parties agree to the terms of Shylock’s deceptive bond, with Antonio believing his ships will return before the deadline. However, it is possible that Shylock’s apparent generosity is a ploy to manipulate Antonio.

In Act 4, Scene 1, the courtroom scene, there is another reason to view Shylock as a villain. Here, the court is summoned to witness the malicious bond between Antonio and Shylock, where Antonio is about to lose a pound of his flesh. As Shylock readies his tools for the task, he perceives it as an act of virtue since he is carrying it out within the boundaries set by the Law of Venice. He declares, “My deeds upon my head, I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

In court, Shylock realizes that he is not violating any laws and believes he is entitled to receive what he sees as justice. He refuses Bassanio’s offer of triple the amount of money. When Bassanio suggests offering himself in place of Antonio, Shylock remains adamant and insists on maintaining the bond and forfeit as they originally were.

The portrayal of Shylock as the villain is evident as he denies every offer made by Bassanio. Everyone pleads with Shylock to show mercy to Antonio. Through Shakespeare’s depiction, Shylock comes across as ruthless and cold in this act, solidifying his position as the play’s villain. Now, let us examine the reasons why Shylock is also a victim in this play. One such reason is evident when he dines with Bassanio (Act 2, Scene 5), completely unaware that his daughter intends to elope with a Christian. It is only in Act 2, Scene 8 when Shylock comprehends the extent of his daughter’s betrayal.

In Act 2, Scene 8 of the play, Solanio, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio, recounts a scene where Shylock, a Jewish character, bemoans the loss of his money and his daughter. Solanio quotes Shylock as saying, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!” This moment highlights Shylock’s suffering as he is abandoned by both his wealth and his family. However, Solanio’s derogatory reference to Shylock as ‘the dog Jew’ reveals the deep-rooted hatred towards Jews in Shakespearean society. It is evident that none of the characters show any sympathy towards Shylock solely because of his Jewish identity.

According to another argument, Shylock is portrayed as a villain in Act 3, Scene 1, where he expresses his sense of betrayal and accuses Solanio and Salerio of having prior knowledge of Jessica’s elopement. As Shylock passionately discusses the shared humanity between Jews and Christians, he states, “My own flesh and blood to rebel” (Act 3, Scene 1), reflecting his deep emotional pain upon discovering his daughter’s escape. In this particular act and scene, Shylock becomes aware of the situation and experiences feelings of hurt and betrayal from Jessica. Once again, Solanio and Salerio intentionally demonstrate cruelty towards Shylock.

Shakespeare depicts Shylock’s deep wounds in this situation, as his own daughter, whom he raised, commits an unimaginable act by eloping with a Christian. This further emphasizes Shylock’s victimhood. Furthermore, Shylock’s victimization is evident during the court scene where he is the only Jew present, highlighting his isolation and the prevailing hostility towards Jews. He arrives in court to fulfill his part of the bond, which was mutually agreed upon by him and Antonio and approved by the Law of Venice. However, the situation quickly turns against Shylock, transforming him into an instant victim.

Antonio has the power to save Shylock from death, but instead he offers him a condition: “Two things provide more, that for this favour, he presently become a Christian; the other, that he do record a gift here in the court of all he dies possessed unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.” (Act4, Scene1) Consequently, Shylock is compelled to support his Christian daughter and Lorenzo and undergo conversion himself. The outcome is undeniable: Shylock becomes the sufferer, having lost both his possessions and his principles.

Plundering him of his religious rights would be difficult as he did not voluntarily embrace Christianity. Shylock believes they should also take his life, since they have already taken away everything that defines him. During this process, he feels like a piece of his soul is being torn away, as he himself says, “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that.” Shakespeare effectively depicts the animosity towards Jews and demonstrates the hostility between Christians and Jews through Shylock’s harsh court sentence.

Shylock being a victim can also be supported by the fact that he discovers Jessica’s extravagant spending with the money she stole from him. Tubal, Shylock’s servant, informs him of Jessica’s excessive splurging, which includes selling a ring for a mere monkey. Shylock laments, “It was a turquoise, I received it from Leah when I was unmarried. I would not have traded it for a multitude of monkeys” (Act 3, Scene 1).

In this scene, Shylock is both hurt and shocked by the fact that his daughter would sell her mother’s ring. This deeply pains him because he has cherished it since his unmarried days. He expresses how he would never part with it due to its immense sentimental value. Shakespeare skillfully portrays Shylock as a sensitive individual, deserving of respect. This highlights that Shylock possesses a sentimental side and should be treated with empathy. The presented evidence supports the notion that Shylock is actually the victim in this play, as opposed to the portrayal of him as a villain. Throughout the play, Shylock endures persecution from the entire Christian community, further substantiating his status as a victim.

The protagonist’s experience of being bullied and singled out as a Jew contributes to his intense yearning for freedom. He desires to have control over his own life and break free from the position of a victim. Unfortunately, his attempts are unsuccessful as he ultimately becomes a victim once more. His emotional devastation is compounded when he loses his daughter to a Christian love interest. To make matters worse, he receives the heart-wrenching news that the ring belonging to his deceased wife, which held sentimental value as a memento of her and was intended as a gift for their daughter, has been sold in exchange for monkeys.

Although Shylock is depicted as a villain, he is truly a victim who is forcefully deprived of his possessions and compelled to convert to Christianity against his desires. Shakespeare intended for Shylock to endure punishment for his wrongdoing, yet I feel sympathy for him because he ultimately experiences the loss of his daughter, poverty, and profound unhappiness solely due to his determination to honor his agreement.

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“The Merchant of Venice”: Is Shylock a Victim or Villian?. (2018, Jul 19). Retrieved from


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