The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, is a play about Antonio, a wealthy merchant, who takes a loan from a Jewish usurer named Shylock in 16th-Century Venice. Antonio uses the money to furnish a trip to Belmont, to assist his close friend Bassanio in seeking to marry Portia, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat. As the most prominent Jewish character in the play, Shylock is subjected to cruel treatment from Antonio and numerous others, variously being spat on, called a dog, or having his daughter, Jessica, defy him by running away with his money to elope. However, his suffering is seemingly acceptable to Antonio and his friends, and even comedic, as he is portrayed as the antagonist of the play. Shakespeare uses extremely negative stereotypes of a Jewish person, especially in portraying Shylock as being unable to show mercy, for example, when he won’t accept ten times the sum of his original loan, but instead insists on collecting it’s original collateral, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. At the end of the play, Antonio and his company all obtain wealth, most get married, and all enjoy a storybook happy ending, which suggests that the audience watching The Merchant of Venice was supposed to think they were the protagonists or heroes. Logically, the audience’s views and attitudes toward Shylock and his misfortunes should be unsympathetic as he has been set up by Shakespeare, throughout the play as the antagonist. However, well after Shylock creates a contract with Antonio, and Shylock’s daughter elopes, it becomes clear that his misfortunes are no longer comedic, and start to become harrowing and take on a greater meaning for the audience. For example, Shylock explains to Antonio that his and everyone else’s hatred of him actually reflects a hatred of their own behaviour. He explains that his inability to show mercy was learned from the mistreatment he received from Antonio and his peers, as opposed to an unmerciful nature. Shylock also discusses the fundamental similarities between Christians and Jews, and how their prejudices of one another are based on false differences, such as superiority of their own religion over the other’s. William Shakespeare creates the unmerciful character of Shylock to lead his audience into a hatred for the antagonist only to then surprise and astonish the audience when they are confronted with the notion that the character that they hate so much, is actually a creation of their own unmerciful nature.
From the initial introductions, impressions, and assessments of Shylock by Antonio and his friends, Shylock is set up as the antagonist, and the other characters are set up as the protagonists. The first indication that Shylock is the antagonist is shown in how early he is introduced in the play: in the third scene of Act One, far ahead of when Antonio and most of his company are first introduced. Shylock’s antagonist role is also demonstrated by how Antonio and his company speak about Shylock. For example, when discussing the use of interest in the loan between Shylock and Antonio, Antonio speaks to his friend Bassanio and says: “Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Shakespeare 33). At several points in the play, Shylock is called the devil, and his actions are presumed to be evil. However, a more prominent theme, especially culminating in the climax of the play, is that Shylock is incapable of mercy. This can be seen in the usurious nature of Shylock’s loaning business, which Antonio hates. Antonio and Bassanio both mockingly call Shylock’s waiving of the interest rate on their contract “kindness” (Shakespeare 37). They equate loaning without interest with mercy, because it makes it less stressful for the party who takes the loan. Because Shylock loans with interest, they believe he isn’t merciful, and dislike him for it. Shylock’s inability to show mercy also leads to his desire for revenge on Antonio, which makes Antonio’s company, as well as the audience, hate him.
While the characters’ roles seem apparent to the audience throughout most of the play, certain moments in the play, as well as a powerful speech given by Shylock, make Shylock’s misfortunes seem more chilling, and provoke the audience to have sympathy for his character and to reflect on their prejudices. Early on in the play, Shylock goes to Solanio and Salarino, friends of Antonio, to accuse them of aiding his daughter’s elopement. Salarino proudly states that “I, for my part, knew the tailor that made the wings she flew withal,” essentially boasting that he did help Shylock’s daughter to elope (Shakespeare 97). Shylock then leaves, telling them that he is adamant about collecting his bond, a pound of flesh, from Antonio. They follow him, and he delivers a speech, pleading for common humanity, as well as telling them that his villainy is taught by Christian example:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases. healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?… And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?… If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (Shakespeare 99).
Shylock outlines two clear messages here: Jews and Christians are alike in their human nature, and that Shylock’s bad qualities were given to him through the example of Christians. His first message seeks to debunk the rationale for prejudice and unequal treatment: that there are any real fundamental differences between Jews and Christians. By explaining the similarities between the two peoples at the root of all human existence, Shakespeare demonstrated that any smaller, dissimilarities in religion and culture do not provide enough of a basis to legitimize discrimination. His second message attempts to get the audience to think about why Shylock is unmerciful, or any of the reasons why they might dislike him. Thinking of the past relationship between Antonio and Shylock, when Antonio has called Shylock a misbeliever, kicked him, and spit on him in public, it’s more than likely that this unmerciful Christian example comes from Antonio, and even his friends (Shakespeare 35). It is clear that the audience is meant to think deeply about this because there are no witty comments after Shylock’s speech as in other passages of the play. Salarino and Solanio can’t respond with something cocky like they did in their initial interaction with Shylock. They are taken aback and the audience is likely also shocked. In this moment, Shakespeare was beginning to force his audience to reflect on their shared prejudice of Jews.
Once this tone had been set, Shakespeare allowed the audience to witness an example of how Antonio and his company perpetuate the villainy which the antagonist Shylock has been guilty of until now. Portia, Bassanio’s wife, comes to the Venetian court where Shylock seeks to enforce his contract with Antonio. She is dressed as a male lawyer named Balthasar, who delivers a speech to Shylock detailing the nature of mercy, and how it isn’t a forced act, but how it must be chosen, and how it is like “an attribute to God Himself…” (Shakespeare 155). Once Shylock makes clear that he is not swayed and that he intends to seek the pound of flesh, and not accept the principle sum of the loan, Portia claims that the agreement doesn’t allow Shylock to spill any of Antonio’s blood. If he does spill his blood, all Shylock’s money will be taken from him (Shakespeare 165). Shylock drops the case, but because he has threatened the life of Antonio, he has to pay a fine, and give half of his estate to the threatened party. Antonio offers to give his share of the money back, so long as Shylock converts to Christianity, which he does, reluctantly (Shakespeare 169). However, after delivering a speech about mercy, and how Shylock should exercise it, Portia is unrelenting in her punishment of Shylock. He attempts to accept the sum of money Bassanio offers, but she doesn’t allow him to take it, as he “hath refused it in the open court” (Shakespeare 165). Portia becomes completely hypocritical in her actions, showing no mercy to Shylock, while expecting him to give it to Antonio.
Shakespeare has taken the audience through the process of hating the antagonist Shylock for his unmerciful, devilish traits and heralding the protagonists, Antonio and his companions for their seemingly benevolent natures. However, both Shylock and Portia’s speeches reveal the hypocrisy of the protagonists’ behaviour and demonstrates that their discrimination and abuse actually breeds Shylock’s resultant unmerciful nature. Shakespeare’s subtle commentary reverses the roles of antagonist and protagonists enough to have audience members reflect on their prejudices while using the same stereotypes to affirm their reflections, leaving the audience wondering whether they should laugh, or feel sympathetic.
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