The Character of Shylock in Merchant of Venice Few characters created by Shakespeare embodies pure evil like the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is a usurer and a malevolent, blood-thirsty old man consumed with plotting the downfall of his enemies. He is a malignant, vengeful character, consumed with venomous malice1; a picture of callous, unmitigated villainy, deaf to every appeal of humanity2. Shylock is the antagonist opposite the naive, essentially good Antonio, the protagonist; who must defend himself against the “devil” Shylock.
The evil he represents is one of the reasons Shakespeare chose to characterize Shylock as a Jew, as Jews of his time were seen as the children of the Devil, the crucifiers of Christ and stubborn rejecters of God’s wisdom and Christianity. However, when Shakespeare created Shylock, he did not insert him in as a purely flat character, consumed only with the villainy of his plot. One of the great talents that Shakespeare possessed, remarks Shakespeare analyst Harrold R. Walley, was his ability to make each key character act like a real, rational person.
Walley said of all of Shakespeare’s characters, hero or villain, that “Their conduct is always presented as logical and justifiable from their point of view3. ” To maintain the literary integrity of the play, “Shakespeare is under the necessity of making clear why a man like Shylock should be wrought to such a pitch of vindictive hatred as to contemplate murder4. ” His evil must have some profound motivation, and that motivation is the evil done to him. Shylock is not an ogre, letting lose harm and disaster without reason.
He was wronged first; the fact that his revenge far outweighs that initial evil is what makes him a villain. Beneath Shylock’ villainy, the concept of evil for evil runs as a significant theme through the play. In order to understand the concept of evil for evil, one must examine the initial evil, aimed at Shylock, through Shylock’s own eyes. Some may see the discrimination aimed at Shylock as justified, as he is a malicious usurer; certainly the Venetians thought so. However, the discrimination took its toll on Shylock, until he began to hate all Christians.
Shylock saw himself as an outsider, alienated by his society. The evil he saw done to him took three major forms: hatred from Antonio, discrimination from Christian Venetians, and the marriage to a Christian of his daughter Jessica. Shylock’s main reason for making the bond was, of course, his hatred of Antonio. Antonio, a “good” Christian who lends without interest, constantly preaches about the sin of usury and publicly denounces Shylock for practicing it. In addition, Shylock hate Antonio for an economic, even petty reason, and remarks that
He lends out money gratis and brings down The rate of usance here with us in Venice. [I. iii. 44-45]. Antonio also spit on him in public and called him a “cut-throat dog. ” Shylock also recognizes Antonio’s anti-Semitism, calling him an enemy of “our sacred nation” [I. iii. 48]. Antonio was always trying to coerce Shylock to convert to Christianity, he even remarks to that effect to Bassanio after the bond is made, and Shylock can sense this and it further fuels his hatred. Shakespearean critic D. A. Traversi finds an additional thought plaguing Shylock.
Tied in with his anti-Semitism is an apparent supremacy Antonio feels over Shylock, expressed in his ruthlessly complacent expression of superiority, I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too; [I. iii. 130-131] so that we may even feel that, when he explicitly tells Shylock: If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not As to thy friends; for when did friendship take A breed for barren metal of his friend? But lend it rather to thine enemy; [I. iii. 132-33, 135] he puts down Shylock as someone who can never be his friend or equal5.
In addition to evil from Antonio, Shylock is despised by the Christians. He himself attributes his woes to the fact that “[He is] a Jew” [III. i. 58]6. He says he hates Antonio because “he is a Christian” [I. iii. 42], and he sees Christians as his oppressors. His thrift is condemned as miserly blood-sucking7, when it is just his own means of survival, based on his own separate standards8. His own insistence on the pound of flesh becomes the direct result of renewed insult9. The final insult Shylock receives at the hands of Christians is the marriage of his daughter Jessica to a Christian.
Walley examines Shylock’s feelings at that moment, that “[Shylock] has been betrayed by his own flesh and blood, and robbed to boot. He now takes on the dual roles of grief-stricken father and duped-miser, though it is almost entirely the latter10. ” Either way, Shylock has once again been dealt evil by the Christians who segregate him. While it is clear that he was an oppressed man, no reader of Shakespeare would shed a single tear for poor Shylock. The evil he returns far outweighs the measure received, even if one would judge the Christians’ discrimination by today’s standards.
Shylock is the villain of the play, and he is far from innocent. The most outright demonstration of evil by Shylock is his insistence on the pound of flesh at the trial scene. Shylock had in the past been seen as evil for his miserly love of money, but now he insists on much more. He is willing to give up three times the loan in exchange for a pound of Antonio’s flesh. This tenacious pursuit of homicidal intentions toward Antonio is representative of Shylock’s character. He is completely devoid of mercy; that and other positive virtues are beyond his comprehension11.
Traversi characterizes Shylock’s personality as being full of “blind spots,” basic human limitations, that when persisted in, “make a balanced human life unattainable12. ” The evil Shylock commits is further compounded by the helplessness of Antonio’s situation. When one examines the signing of the bond, further duplicitous treachery on Shylock’s part becomes evident. Shylock puts Antonio in a situation where he cannot say no to the apparently innocuous but potentially dangerous bond. When Antonio approaches Shylock, he asks for the money, yet insists that Shylock lend it “to thine enemy,” an implicit, unstated rebuke of usury.
Shylock then pounces on this opportunity, and offers a proposal that seems to act upon Antonio’s teaching, slipping in his seemingly ridiculous contingency of a pound of flesh, which Antonio would never dream could be taken seriously. This puts Antonio in a precarious position: he must agree, as to reject reformation is to nullify censure13. Further duplicity on Shylock’s part is seen in the fact that he himself acts as if he does not take the pound of flesh seriously, when he imparts to Antonio the perfectly reasonable contention, “If he should break this day, what should I gain? [I. iii. 163]14. Literary critic James E. Siemon, finds further evidence to point out the profound evil Shylock exudes in Shakespeare’s setup of the trial scene. By that point it is obvious to all that Shylock is consumed with evil and will stop at nothing to have his revenge, and the trial is both a condemnation of Shylock and a hope of reform for him. The Duke, a figure of authority and supreme judgement, speaks true when he calls Shylock a “stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity” [IV, i. 4-5]15.
The audience is meant to realize, if they have not already, that a man cannot live without the qualities of mercy and pity, and it is the lack of these that makes him commit evil deeds. Siemon remarks that Portia’s plea is essentially a plea for Shylock rather than for Antonio. She is pleading with him to throw off his stony, inhuman nature and to take his place as a man among men, to acknowledge… that he is a man and that all men live by mercy. 16 The audience is meant to understand that Shylock must change his very nature in order to be a member of society.
The fact that Shylock does not respond to Portia is further proof that Shylock is a complete villain. Siemon opens his essay on The Merchant of Venice with the following statement: “The Merchant of Venice is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies to attempt a full-scale depiction of evil. 17” Indeed, evil is a major theme of the play, and certainly one of the most profound characteristics of Shylock. He represents the tormented receiver of evil from society, the evil villain plotting to destroy the hero, and most importantly, a man fueled by others’