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Why Shylock Is a Complex Character

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    The way a character gets its reputation is affected by the way the reader and other characters view them, and that perspective can change at any point throughout the storyline. In Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is presented as the most developed character. Shakespeare purposely creates both an antagonist and protagonist in Shylock, by creating a change in view for the reader throughout the play. He can be viewed as a hated Jew that is often referred to as a villain, a devil, and a money obsessed freak, but a sudden change of personality tends to always occur.

    We first see Shylock as a person who chooses everything over money, but later we find out that there are in fact some things he places above money. In act one scene three, however, the reader’s first impression of Shylock is he is a victim of bullying and anti-Semitism until we later discover Shylock has a different side of him when he demands for flesh. This reflects Shylock’s speech in act three scene one, where Shylock stands up for himself and creates sympathy for the reader opposed to the impression of Shylock we gain from other characters’ point of view.

    Shylock makes it clear he has a designated hate for Antonio, but only because he does not respect the anti-Semitism and disrespect Antonio creates towards Shylock. He goes on to say how much he hates Antonio’s behavior. Shylock says, “He hates our sacred nation, and he rails/…/ Cursed be my tribe/ If I forgive him! ” (1. 3. 44-48). Shylock uses these quotations of his soliloquy as an opportunity to express rejection of ever forgiving the Christians, but particularly Antonio.

    He continues to explain that Antonio hates the Jews, and uses bitter and offensive language towards Shylock and the members of his religion which Shylock does not respect in any matter. Shakespeare makes this message clear to the reader by using connotation. The word that stands out most beyond doubt is hate, which creates feelings of anger and negativity. Sympathy for Shylock is then aroused because of the impact Antonio’s hate has on Shylock, and strengthens the speaker’s feelings to a point where the reader looks at Shylock in a perspective of a victim of anti-Semitism.

    This reflects Shylock’s speech in act one scene three where Shylock brings in evidence that Antonio has said and done numerous things to cause a tense relationship between the two. Antonio has done all things from spitting on Shylock’s beard and Jewish robe, kicking him, and calling him a dog and a misbeliever. Shylock states, “Still I have bourne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe. ” (1. 3. 105-106).

    Shylock uses this quotation directed at Antonio to explain that although he is being insulted by Antonio, he will just shrug it off because him and the other members of his religion are used to being singled out for persecution and are used to suffering. The audience of today’s time period see that Shakespeare makes good use of the word sufferance to create a vivid visual for the reader of what Shylock goes through on a daily basis and to show the reader that Shylock is a poor victim of anti-Semitism and bullying.

    This really creates a view of sympathy for the reader and allows the reader to look at Shylock as a protagonist and Antonio as an antagonist. The perspective of Shylock as a protagonist suddenly changes when Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the three thousand ducats Bassanio needs in order to impress Portia. Shylock’s hate for Antonio is no longer expressed from Antonio’s unnecessary behavior, but in a matter of cruel revenge. Shylock exclaims, “Be nominated for an equal pound/ Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me.” (1. 3. 145-147). This explains that Antonio will need to pay the price of a pound of flesh if failed to pay the three thousand ducats back in a matter of three months. The role of the word choice “fair” and “pleaseth” is showing the importance the pound of flesh is to Shylock and how eager he is to own it. Using fair to describe the flesh shows how valuable Antonio’s flesh is to Shylock and that he is not only thirsty for the blood but for the revenge.

    Hence the fact Shylock repeatedly brings up the word bond, shows repetition which impacts the way the reader looks at Shylock; viewing him as obsessive with the fact there will be a possibility of receiving Antonio’s flesh and a possibility of Antonio dying. A vicious and revengeful perspective then comes out to the reader that eliminates any feelings of sympathy and increases a view of an antagonist. These two situations give a sudden perspective twist of Shylock, both happening in the same scene. This is just proof that one slight change of behavior can change the readers’ entire interpretation of a character at any point throughout the play, and that Shylock can be viewed in two different sides.

    When Shylock responds to his daughter Jessica’s runaway, it seems as if he is only concerned about the money Jessica had ran away with than the fact his daughter is gone. When Solanio discusses Antonio’s ships and Jessica’s elopement, he tells Salerio that Shylock screamed, “My daughter! My ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! Oh my Christian ducats!/ Justice, the law, my ducats, and my daughter! / A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats”(2. 8. 15-18). The point that Shylock is trying to prove is that he is clearly devastated that his money and daughter are gone, but it is clear to the reader he is more devastated about his money than he is at all for his daughter.

    The amount of repetition of the word ducats opposed to the amount of times he’s mentioned his daughter, shows he places money in a much more superior position above his daughter. That being said, when Shylock says, “and jewels, two stones, two rich and precious/ stones,”. (2. 8. 19-20), Shakespeare uses the word choice of “rich” and “precious” to create the vivid imagery of the stones for the readers and to show how much the stones are worth to him opposed to the worthiness he portrays of his daughter, which he shows no word choice to describe his daughter whatsoever. This all creates a heartless and selfish characteristic for Shylock and forces the reader to look at him in the perspective of an antagonist; an obstacle in Jessica’s life. Although Shylock is portrayed as a careless father who chooses money over everything else, he proves us wrong in act three scene one which creates a perspective twist.

    Shylock goes on to explain, “Out upon her! – Thou torturest me, Tubal – it was/ my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bach-/elor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. ” Shylock talks about the turquoise ring Jessica ran away with that was given to him by his dead wife Leah when they were soon to be married, and is one of Shylock’s most prized possessions. It is Shylock’s prized possession not because of the value of price but because it is genuinely important to him.

    He is devastated when Tubal tells him Jessica had sold the ring for a monkey and uses the term “torturest” to describe that Tubal is torturing him by telling him this. The emotions and feelings around the word “torturest” are negative and remind the reader of sadness and mercy, which shows how devastated and upset Shylock is of the trade of his ring. This shows how devoted Shylock was toward Leah and valued her above money; the ring being the only thing left of her. This impacts the way the reader looks at Shylock; now in a softer side unlike the money-obsessed Shylock portrayed in act two.

    The two scenes differentiate perspectives of the reader and create both an antagonist and protagonist. This is another reason why Shylock is such a developed character. He can be viewed in two different perspectives of the same topic; in this case being money and human relationships. Shylock’s actions and words are not the only thing that effects our interpretation of Shylock, but the words and actions of others. Throughout the play, Shylock has been described as a devil, a villain, heartless, and a misbeliever by not only Antonio, but by all other characters as well.

    The one thing that Shylock is insulted for the most is the fact he is a Jew. Even Jessica, as Shylock’s daughter, confesses she is ashamed to share the same blood as Shylock because of the way she and everyone else views him when she claims, “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me/ To be ashamed to be my father’s child! / But though I am a daughter to his blood,/ I am not to his manners. ” (2. 4. 16-19). Here she tells Launcelot she is ashamed to be the daughter of Shylock, but even though she is related to him, she is not nearly as greedy and devil-like as her father is.

    Shakespeare compares dissimilarity of Shylock and Jessica with a metaphor. In this case, Shakespeare’s use of a metaphor is highly convenient, showing how unalike Shylock and Jessica are even though relation exists. Taking consideration of the way Jessica used the word “ashamed” to describe her relation to Shylock, the reader automatically creates the perspective of Shylock being an awful character, who is clearly an obstacle in Jessica’s life and forces the reader to place the view of a protagonist in Jessica’s position instead and Shylock as an antagonist.

    This reflects when Launcelot portrays Jessica as the “most beautiful/ pagan, most sweet Jew! ” ( 2. 4. 10-11), opposed to when he describes Shylock as a devil when he says, “certainly the Jew is the very devil/ incarnation”(2. 2. 26-27). Launcelot’s view of Jessica as a Jew is she is the most beautiful and kindest of them all, whereas he claims that Shylock as a Jew shares the same flesh as the devil. The word choice of “beautiful” and “sweet” directed at a Jew, shown in Launcelot’s quotation of Jessica bring a visual image of a girl who is extraordinary, considering the fact she is a Jew and Jews were viewed as an associate with the devil. The way Launcelot describes Shylock however, the words “devil” and “incarnation” bring the unwelcoming feeling evil and darkness, which affect Shylock in a way that the reader views him as an evil and dark. Considering these are negative personality traits, a negative perspective of Shylock takes place; giving him the label of an antagonist.

    This proves that it is not only Shylock’s actions and words that affect him as a character, but also the words of others as well. Despite what all the characters say, it is the words of Shylock himself that changes the reader’s perspective. As stated before, Shylock has been portrayed as a villain through mockery and hatred of religion. Shylock then finally has the courage to stand up for himself; tired of everyone bringing all the faults on him. Shylock goes on to say that Christians and Jews have many things in common. “fed with the same

    food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same disease, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? ” (3. 1. 56-60) Here Shylock clarifies that Jews are fed with the same weapons, affected by the same disease as Christians, healed with the same medication and treatments, and are cold when it is winter and warm when it is summer as all Christians are. He says this to plea for a complete stop of anti-Semitism and hopes for some human tolerance. He then asks rhetorically, “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

    Comparing the two quotations, Shakespeare makes use of analogy by explaining that if all Jews are the same in all human means as a Christian is, they have the same rights when it comes to revenge; suggesting that vengeance and villainy are not part of a Jew’s nature and must be learned from Christians. This is used to prove the reader Shylock does have the right for vengeful comeback, and that there are faults in Antonio for believing Jews were ever less human than Christians. Another rhetorical question identified in Shylock’s speech is the simple “-and what’s his reason?” (3. 1. 54), in response to Antonio’s behavior that is clearly anti-Semitic because he then answers the question right after. Antonio’s reason is Shylock is a Jew. This results in a conclusion that everything Antonio and the other characters have ever said about Shylock was because he is a Jew. A rhetorical question is used to only add effect, and the effect of this question was to leave the reader thinking of the treatment Shylock receives and to put out the fact that Christians are no superior to Jews. This all creates a feel of a curious compassion for Shylock for the reader.

    It is used to balance out the flaws of Christians and Jews, and to create sympathy for Shylock which creates the view of an antagonist. In conclusion, Shylock is the most developed and complex character because of the different perspectives Shakespeare portrays of Shylock. Whether it would be money wise, personality wise, or religious wise, the reader can interpret Shylock as a protagonist, although he was given the role of the antagonist. All other characters of the play are seen as one dimensional, which puts Shylock in the position of the main character.

    If it was not for Shylock, the play would not be filled with as much excitement which would affect the reader’s willingness to read further. The role of such a developed character like Shylock leaves readers thinking about how they, as a reader really interpret the developed character by the end of the play after viewing the character in many different perspectives. Shakespeare purposely does this to balance out the flaws of Shylock with the other characters, but most of all to intrigue the reader and to encourage them to read forward.

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