The Character of Shylock in Merchant of Venice
Every character in a drama is multifaceted. As to how we perceive a character, depends on our choice and perspective. The same goes for Shylock in Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare.
Was Shylock the villainous, stubborn, cruel character? Or, was he an upstanding member of his community, who upheld custom and law, even forgave others and endured abuse? Well, he was one or the other or both. It all depends on how we choose to see him.
For instance, while most of us may like to see him as villain of the piece, some of us may wonder after all what was at the root of his vile nature. Didn’t Shylock endure much of Antonio’s abuse for a long period of time? In Act 3, Scene 1, beginning with line 52, he laments over the mockery and abuse heaped upon him:
"He hath disgraced me half a million, laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine enemies..."
Often we remember his cruelty on insisting upon his pound of flesh, but forget about his magnanimity towards Antonio despite enduring humiliations from him. He offered Antonio a loan- free of interest- on more lucrative terms than his normal business terms. Let us not forget that this offer was made to some one who had ruined him and left no opportunity to humiliate him. We come across Shylock’s magnanimous gesture in Act 1, Scene 3, beginning with line 148:
“Why, look how you storm! I would be friends with you and
have you love, forget the names that you have stained me
with, supply your present needs and take no doit of usance
for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me! This is kind I offer.”
Shylock has been made to appear a man with the lack of moral conscience, who is remorseless and cruel towards his own daughter. In Act 3, Scene 1, Line 83, he says:
“Why, there, there, there, there! A diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats in Frankfurt! The curse never fell upon our nation till now, I never felt it till now. Two thousand ducats in that and other precious, precious jewels! I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear…” However, we must examine Shylock’s response within the Jewish community of the contemporary time frame. When a daughter ran away the only recourse for a father was to disown her. When she was disowned, she was no better than a thief who had stole away Shylock’s jewels and hence deserved to be punished.
Shylock was also a law abiding citizen that deserves to be highlighted. The following quotes from Act 4, Scene 1 show his exemplary respect for the law of the land.
Line 104: “I stand for judgment”
Line 213: “I crave the law”
Line 257: “O Noble judge”
Although Shylock has undoubtedly a very unhealthy thirst for revenge, it is not very difficult for some of us to empathize with him because vengeance is a natural trait in those who feel have been terribly wronged. And Shylock is no exception. His attitude towards his daughter and Antonio is guided by the passion of extreme vengeance, and inhuman cruelty and these traits make him appear as a crook to us. However, when we look at the totality of the events surrounding him, we find the sharp distinctions of good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong, hero and villain getting blurred.