Character Sketch of Shylock in Merchant of Venice – ICSE Class 10, 9 English
A Famous Shakespearean Character: A Villain Deserving Some Sympathy
Shylock is one of the best-known characters in the entire range of Shakespearean drama. He is also a controversial character. Some critics and readers regard him as a through villain while others believe that, in spite of his villainy, he deserves some sympathy also. It is necessary for us therefore to assess this man’s character impartially. He certainly has his hateful traits of character; and he certainly deserves to be called a villain. But we still feel some sympathy for him because, in our opinion, he is not only a wrtfng-doer but also a victim of wrong-doing by others.
By profession, Shylock is a money-lender. Money-lending by itself is not something shameful or discreditable, or degrading, or even objectionable. However, money-lending becomes something odious and abhorrent if a money-lender becomes an exploiter by charging excessive rates of interest. Shylock is a money-lender who tries to enrich himself and to accumulate wealth by exploiting the financial needs of others. One reason why he hates Antonio is that Antonio lends money to needy persons without charging any interest at all, and Antonio thus brings down the rate of interest in Venice. Shylock has already hoarded a lot of wealth by his usury, but his craving for more money is not satisfied. This makes him a contemptible person in the play. In this respect he is a typical Jew because the Jews have traditionally been regarded as usurers. It is only in our own times that the Jews have been able to shed that image. Today the Jews are regarded as a versatile race of people, possessing many gifts and talents.
His Intolerance of Christians; and His Extreme Miserliness
Shylock repels us not only by his usury but also by his religious intolerance. He hates Christians and he hates them fiercely. At one point in the play, he says in an aside that he hates Antonio firstly because Antonio is a Christian and secondly because Antonio brings down the rate of interest in Venice by lending money gratis. As a Jew, Shylock does not eat pork and he would not therefore like to join the Christians at a dinner where pork is to be served as one of the dishes. This much we can understand and accept. Everybody has a right not to eat a certain kind of meat, and also a right not to eat meat altogether. Everybody has even the right not to attend a dinner where meat is to be served. But nobody should hate others because they eat meat or a particular kind of meat. In this respect, as in all other respects, tolerance is the right attitude to adopt. But Shylock makes pork-eating one of the grounds for his hatred of Christians who are pork-eaters. In one of his speeches he refers to the Biblical story of the manner in which Christ had lured the devil to enter into the body of a pig. However, this is a very minor issue in the play. Eventually Shylock does agree to attend a Christian dinner; and his reason for attending it further lowers him in our estimation. He would like to eat at the expense of the Christians who are extravagant and who spend money needlessly. By eating a meal at the expense of the Christians, he can save a little money at home; and this is the height of miserliness and meanness. The Jews are-traditionally regarded as misers, though such is no longer the case in our own times. Launcelot Gobbo refers to Shylock’s miserliness when he says that in the Jew’s service he is “famished” (that is, starving). And yet Shylock says to Launcelot that the latter would not enjoy those facilities in Bassanio’s service which he is enjoying here, in the Jew’s house. We feel really amused to find that, although Shylock is a big miser, he thinks himself to be very generous.
His Deceitful and Crafty Dealings
Shylock is a deceitful and crafty man. At first he expresses his unwillingness to give a loan to Antonio on the ground that Antonio had been ill-treating him. However, an altogether different idea takes shape in his mind. He then agrees to give the loan but he lays down the condition that the bond to be signed should contain a clause according to which he would become entitled to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh from nearest his heart if Antonio fails to repay the loan within a period of three months. If is thus that he lures Antonio into signing the bond, saying at the same time that this clause is intended only as a joke because a pound of human flesh can serve no purpose at all and because even the flesh of animals like goats and sheep has greater value than human flesh. In other words, Shylock employs cunning to have to bond signed. He treats the bond as a weapon which he might be able to use in case Antonio, by some mischance, is rendered penniless and finds it impossible to repay the loan. In this respect, then, Shylock shows considerable shrewdness and even a capacity to foresee the future. In this matter of the bond, and the discussion which takes place between him and the Christians (Bassanio and Antonio), several facets of Shylock’s personality become evident to us. He here shows himself as a cunning, hypocritical, humble as well as arrogant man. He even cites a Biblical incident to justify the charging of interest, though he admits that this incident is not exactly a precedent but only a parallel to prove the validity of charging some kind of fee for the services which one renders to others. In any case, the whole scene in which the transaction takes place reveals Shylock’s character in an unfavourable light. He here appears as a detestable person deserving our dislike and hatred.
His Revengeful and Blood thirst Nature
Shylock is a revengeful and bloodthirsty man. From the very start, he is shown as planning to take his revenge upon Antonio for the latter’s ill-treatment of him. Antonio’s need for a loan serves him as a great opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon him. Subsequently no appeals from the Duke and the magnificence move him to pity. Even Portia’s eloquent plea for mercy tails to have any effect upon him. He feels jubilant when it seems that the verdict of the court would go in his favour; and he begins to exult over Portia’s pronouncement in the beginning that he has a very strong case. He bluntly tells the judge that there is no power in the tongue of man to alter his resolve to take a pound of flesh, “My deeds upon my head”, he says. He simply invokes the law which entitles him to the penalty and the forfeit of his bond, and he clings to the position he has taken up.
His Suspicious Nature
Shylock has a suspicious nature and does not trust anyone. He cannot trust either his servant or his daughter. Although his suspicious nature is no merit in him, yet we must admit that he is fully justified in his suspicions. His servant detests him, and so does his daughter. While the servant merely leaves his service, his daughter goes to the extent of running away from home with a Christian and stealing a considerable amount of his money and his jewels.
His Redeeming Qualities
Even though Shylock is a villain, he does have a couple of redeeming qualities. He is a champion of his race. He speaks eloquently and convincingly about the injustice which the Jews have always suffered at the hands of the Christians. He offers a forceful plea on behalf of the Jews in his speech beginning: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” Then there is his sentiment for his dead wife, Leah. On learning that his daughter had given away a particular jewel in exchange for a monkey, he says that this jewel had been given to him by Leah when he was still a bachelor; and he goes on to say: “1 would not have given it (the jewel) for a wilderness of moneys.” Besides, his character is distinguished by an intellectual force and vigour which are praiseworthy. It is in view of these good qualities in him that he wins our sympathy when he is cruelly treated at the end. At the same time we must not forget that he is essentially an evil man full of spite and malice against the Christians and, more particularly, against his enemy Antonio. And, of course, there is a comic side to him also. He appears as a monster when he begins to sharpen his knife in order to cut off a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. He would use this flesh as bait to catch fish if he cannot make any other use of it. And he appears as a comic character when he cries simultaneously: “0 my ducats! O my daughter! O my Christian ducats”! And he becomes a pathetic figure at the end when he staggers out of the court, a ruined man and a fanatical Jew who must now turn a Christian.
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