Shylock is a Jew who is looked down upon in his society for his religion, as that was how it was in the Shakespearean days. Because Shakespeare was Christian, he often portrayed Jews as villains in his stories, but in truth, was shylock actually a villain, or a victim?
The first time Shylock’s character actually appears is in Act 1, Scene 3. He is discussing with Bassanio the issue of lending him money under the assurance of Antonio’s bond. Bassanio asks him for three thousand ducats, stating that ‘Antonio shall be bound.’ After shylock knows this, he answers in a response to the proposition by saying ‘Antonio is a good man.’ He then goes on to describe the bonds that Antonio has with other countries, from the knowledge he had. After listing his bonds, shylock agrees to lend him the money.
In this scene, shylock is not being victimized, but he is not being a villain either, as, by taking Antonio’s bond for Bassanio, he appears to be a trusting, worthy, and pleasant man.
However, when shylock starts to talk abut Antonio after he has entered the room, his image is completely changed. Shylock immediately changes his mood and begins to speak about Antonio in a total change of attitude. The second line he says as soon as Antonio enters is, ‘I hate him for he is Christian.’ Reading this is actually shocking for us, as nowadays there are so many protests to stop racism all around the world. To hear this coming from a Shakespearean character really gives him a bad image, and at this point I started to look at him more as a villain. Making racial comments did not make him look very good at all, according to me, but there was also the fact that he kept making rude comments to Antonio’s face. A few minutes ago, before Antonio had walked into the room, he had been complimenting Antonio towards Bassanio. This striked him as two faced, which is not a good quality to have at all. Because of this, the ‘villain’ image stuck on him in my view, for the time being.
I say, for the time being, because later in the text of the same scene, we start to understand why shylock was given this treatment to Antonio. Shylock says to Antonio, ‘you call me misbeliever, a cut throat dog, and spit upon my Jewish gabardine.’ When he says this, we understand that Antonio, in earlier times, had disrespected shylock, and in my view, this was a valid enough reason to treat Antonio the way he did, as although Antonio was just one man, he disapproved of Jews, and perhaps in shylocks eyes, Antonio was easily symbolized to represent all Christians. I sympathized with shylock for this, and he was once again portrayed as a victim.
In Act 2 Scene 5, shylock is with Jessica, his daughter. His tone in which he speaks to his daughter seems fine, but again, he is putting Christians down by calling them ‘Christian fools.’ By now I know most of his reasons for hating Christians, so to me he was still a victim, but some of the things he did were unreasonable, for example, I think Jessica should have been able to create her own opinion about Christians, instead of having her father try to drill these racial comments into her head.
However, although he tries to make Jessica think like he does, dramatic irony is used in the beginning of scene 3. Shylock knows nothing of this, but the audience has learnt from a conversation between Jessica and Launcelot that she is planning to elope with him. Bu knowing this information, we realize that Jessica obviously does not have an open relationship with her father, as she hides big secrets from him.
Jessica also says, ‘Alack, what heinous sin it is in me to be ashamed to be my father’s child. But although I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners.’ If Jessica had said this in an angry manner, showing hatred upon her father, I would probably still sympathize with shylock. But instead I start to sympathize with Jessica, which gives him the image of a villain once again.
Later in the book, there comes a time in act 2 scene 8, when shylock is given the full villain image. This is when Jessica actually runs away. The imitation given of shylock when he found out was explained by Solano and Saleroom and apparently, he had been in a state of shock and cried, ‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian!’ This wasn’t a surprise to me, as I knew he didn’t like Christians. However, when he cried for Jessica to be found, we see that this was not out of love, but in fact his money. He cries, ‘Justice! Find the girl! She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats!’ According to me, being with a Christian and the fact that she has his money should be the last things on his mind. Jessica is his daughter and she could easily be in an unsafe place where she didn’t want to be.
Because Jessica had now run away with a Christian, when shylock finds out about this, he is even more hateful towards Christians. I feel this was unfair, as it was Jessica’s choice as well as Launcelots.
In Act 3 scene 3, Shylock appears with Antonio and Solanio, and he is arguing that he did not get his bond. Here I start to feel sorry for him, as the bond was a promise, and shylock also keeps talking about how Antonio hates him, which also makes me sympathize. This, once again, made him seem a victim, but this time I stuck with thinking he was a villain, as, when I looked back overall, he seemed a bigger villain than a victim.
Referring back to the question, one thing I had to keep in mind was the opinions of both audiences, nowadays, and the audience in the actual Shakespearean times. The main point I made in this essay was the racism, as that is an issue that has changed quite a lot over the years. As opposed to today, people back then thought nothing of racism, so to them shylock would continue being a victim whatever he did. But nowadays people are more sympathetic towards victims of racism, so shylock is less of a victim. However, after the examples I have read over, I still see him as a victim.