The Merchant of Venice: Shylock - Victim or Villain


In 1594 the Earl of Essex, an English Nobleman who lived during the
Elizabethan period in England, was actively involved in the persecution and
trials of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez was a Jew of Portuguese descent, who was
wrongly accused of attempting to poison the Queen of England, for reasons never
fully explained. Lopez, being the Queen\'s royal physician, was in no position
to defend himself once he was accused. Essex, who provided the evidence also
presided over the trial of Lopez, leaving Lopez little chance of survival. The
innocent Jew was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Tyburn, England for all to
witness.
The story of Roderigo Lopez is similar to the story of Shylock, although,
Palmer tells us "It is not suggested that Shakespeare in portraying Shylock, had
any political or social intentions" ( 112-13). Both Jews were placed in time
where "anti-Semitism was in fashion" (Palmer 113), and both thrown into court
where they would be tried unjustly. The story of Roderigo Lopez sets the tone
for The Merchant of Venice. Lopez\' incident occurred in 1594, The Merchant of
Venice was written only two years later. Anti-Semitism was prevalent during
Shakespeares\' time, and therefore we must understand that it was as easy for him
to make a Jewish man the villain as it would be for us to make a Nazi the
villain. According to Sylvan Barnet "The Merchant of Venice [shows] the
broad outline of a comedy (not merely a play with jests, but a play that ends
happily). . . the villain in the comedy must be entirely villainous, or, rather,
comically villainous; he cannot for a moment gain the audience\'s sympathy" (1).
Shylock has often been portrayed as the villain in The Merchant of Venice. From
being more concerned with his ducats rather than his daughter, to demanding his
pound of flesh, Shylock fits perfectly into the mold of the villain. However,
with reference to Barnet\'s comment "he cannot for a moment gain the audience\'s
sympathy" (1), Shylock oversteps the boundaries of his villainous character.
The audience cannot and would not have rooted for Shylock during Shakespeare\'s
lifetime, yet, now we do. Shylock is merely a victim of anti-Semitism.
Although victorious in his bond, Shylock was raped of his lands, his faith and
his pride. Shylock not the necessarily the villain, rather the victim.
Shakespeare takes his time before introducing Shylock, however, when he
does, he shows us a decent businessman.

Bassanio
May you stead me? Will you pleasure me?
Shall I know your answer?
Shylock
Three thousand ducats for three months--
and Antonio bound.
Bassanio
Your answer to that.
Shylock
Antonio is a good man.
Bassanio
Have you heard any imputation to the
contrary?
Shylock
Ho no, no, no, no...my meaning in saying
he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient. Yet his means are in supposition : he hath
an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies;
I understand moreover upon the Rialto he hath a third
at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he
hath squandered abroad. But ships are but boards,
sailors but men--there be land-rats and water-rats,
land-thieves and water-thieves--I mean pirates-and
then there is peril of waters, winds, and rocks. The
man is, notwithstanding, sufficient. Three thousand
ducats--I think I may take his bond (I. iii. 7-26.).

Through this entire exchange Shylock says that Antonio is financially fit.
Shylock knows that Antonio is good for the three thousand ducats. Then, as any
good businessman would do, he considers how Antonio, a merchant, has all of his
ships at sea. He talks of the dangers of sea and how Antonio may not get all of
his ships back, if so, he will not have the money. It is here that we begin to
get a glimpse of Shylocks\' evilness. "The man is, not withstanding, sufficient.
Three thousand ducats--I think I may take his bond" (I. i. 25-26.). Shylock
realizes his opportunity, he can profit from this venture. Shakespeare begins
to create his villain, we have no choice but to hate this man. Shakespeare
continues to build his villain by giving Shylock an aside in which he reveals
his hatred for Antonio, because he is a Christian and he lends money without
charging interest, thus bringing the interests rates down. However, it is in
this same scene that we hear Shylocks defense.

Shylock
Signor Antonio, many a time and oft
in the rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat