During the 1600’s, the city of Venice was the most liberal and powerful city state in the whole of Europe. However, intolerance of Jews was a problem which was rife. Many Jews were forced to live in the ‘Ghetto’ of Venice which was ruled by Christians. If they wished to leave the ghetto during the daytime, they had to wear red hats so as they were recognisable from the Christians. To some extent, the prejudice and treatment of the Jew’s was eerily similar to the anti-Semitism during the Second World War.
The laws for Jews living in Venice at the time differed from the laws applied to Christians. For example, Jews were not allowed to own property and it was difficult for them to obtain jobs with decent salaries. Therefore, many Jews practised usury; the lending of money at an unreasonable rate of interest. Usury was against Christian law and so Jews practising usury simply gave Christians yet another reason to ostracise them. The concept of usury is relevant to this play as it is a Christian’s participation in the act which the main plot stems from.
The character of Shylock lends money to his foe, Antonio, at the agreement that if he cannot pay it back within three months, Shylock can take ‘an equal pound of your (Antonio’s) fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me. ‘. The play is not written in a way which sympathises greatly with Shylock, the Jew. The events that unfurl involving Shylock make it difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for the character. The fatal bond between Shylock and Antonio is sealed in Act 1 scene 3.
The reader learns that Shylock hates Antonio because of his beliefs ‘… e is a Christian’, but more so because of business reasons, ‘He lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance’. It seems unfair of Shylock’s character to base his hatred on these reasons as he does not appreciate Antonio as a person; he sees him as a Christian who is a threat to his business. Therefore, Shylock is prejudice. It is evident even at this early stage in the play that money is something which Shylock treasures and regards highly. It would be understandable for his character to feel some dislike towards Antonio’s for causing his earnings to decrease, but to hate him for this is unwarranted.
Shylock’s character appears to be baleful and his emotions extreme. Shylocks menacing character is explored further in this scene when he proposes the forfeit Antonio is to appease to. It is deeply disturbing that Shylock requests for Antonio’s flesh should he not be able to repay him. Shylock has a bloodthirsty need for Antonio to die painfully and so reveals to the play’s reader a sadistic personality. Although the reader is already informed of Shylock’s hatred, yet again it seems unjustifiable for him to want to kill Antonio if he should not be able to pay him back.
The character of Antonio must also be considered to fully understand whether Shylock’s hatred can be licensed. Antonio is a wealthy merchant. He is portrayed as a loyal and generous friend to Bassanio; he is willing to lend him 3000 ducats so as he can present himself as a possible husband for a young heiress of Belmont, Portia. It is Antonio’s treatment of Bassanio which evokes the reader to respect him. The character of Antonio is courteous. Therefore, it seems that, if anything, Shylock is jealous of Antonio, possibly of his wealth, as there seems to be no understandable reason to despise him.
Shylock’s hatred for Antonio is unfair. In Act1 Scene 3, the reader discovers that Shylock is bitter from the inequality he has witnessed and experienced between Christians and Jews. He is a malicious, menacing man whose values are material things (money). I, as the reader, can feel very little sympathy for Shylock in this scene, the only sympathy coming from the fact that he has been mistreated by Christians because of his race and beliefs. Act 2 Scene 2, Launcelot gives a monologue in which he battles with his conscience.
He believes that if he stays as Shylock’s servant, he is staying with the devil, ‘the Jew my master… is a kind of devil’. However, if he leaves ‘… I should be ruled by the fiend’. Clearly there must be a reason as to why Launcelot believes Shylock to be comparable to the devil, which intrigues the reader into wanting to know more about the character of Shylock, and persuades them into the belief that he is not an honest man. However the reader is not told Launcelot’s reasons as to why he has a great dislike for Shylock.
There is no evidence in Launcelot’s speech that Shylock is abusive either and so the truth about Shylock and Launcelot’s’ relationship is left a mystery. This scene tells the reader that Shylock’s character is not well liked. This fact, therefore, further repels the reader from sympathising with Shylock Act 2 Scene 3 is extremely relevant to discovering another characters opinion of Shylock. Shylock’s daughter Jessica is planning to escape from her father, ‘I shall end this strife, become a Christian and thy loving wife’ marry her love, Lorenzo, and become a Christian.
She plans to ruthlessly betray Shylock. As Shylock detests Christians, the reader can foresee his anger. Jessica rejecting her faith is perceived by the reader as a rebellion against her father, especially as the reader learns of her sheer loathing of him, ‘… to be ashamed to be my fathers child’. Launcelot and Jessica feel similarly about the atmosphere in Shylock’s house; Launcelot wants to leave, as does Jessica, ‘our house is hell’. Jessica cannot bear living in her father’s house with her father, which elicits great sympathy from the reader as she does not have a loving relationship with her father.
The reader is now convinced of Shylock’s inhumane nature, although they are still left with very little evidence of it, only other characters negative perceptions. The reader is captivated into wanting to know more about Shylock’s relationship with other characters. In Act 2 Scene 5 it is clear that Shylock’s relationship with Jessica and Launcelot is one where he sees himself as a superior. He is demanding of Jessica and a peremptory father; he repeatedly calls her to him as if she is a domestic animal, ‘What Jessica!… What Jessica!… Why Jessica I say! ‘.
Shylock treats her as if she is merely there to serve him. He infantilizes Jessica and forces her into a position of subjection by his condescending manner of speaking to her, ‘my girl’, as if she is still a young child. Shylock’s character becomes laughable when he tells Jessica to lock herself in the house, ‘lock up my doors… let not the shallow sound of foppery enter my sober house’. It is ridiculous that he believes that even by hearing the sounds of Christians, or seeing their faces that Jessica will somehow become infected by them, as if they will damage her.
It is as if a small child will not understand unless the point is exaggerated, as if Jessica is that child who is incapable of doing as her father wants. Launcelot is openly humiliating of Shylock in this scene, which seems very audacious for a servant, whose very role is to obey his master. He mimics him in saying ‘Why Jessica! ‘ and undermines him when he says ‘Look out the window for all this – there will come a Christian by Will be worth a Jewes’ eye. ‘ Act 2 Scene 5 only invites the reader to sympathise with Jessica, who Shylock treats as an inferior, unintelligent young child.
It is understandable that Launcelot is rude to Shylock, when Shylock’s demands are so preposterous. Act 3 Scene 1 is the only scene which causes the reader to feel some sympathy towards Shylock. He discovers that Jessica wasted the money she stole. There is an overriding emphasis on his wealth and it is saddening that he values his wealth over his daughter, ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear’. Shylock’s character, however, shows that he also values things other than for their worth.
He learns that Jessica exchanged a ring of his for a monkey and is very upset, ‘It was my turquoise, I had it of Leah (presumably his lover) when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. ‘ It is revealed that the ring had sentimental value to Shylock, and therefore his character is capable of compassion for another. In the final act, The Court Scene, Shylock’s character is once again the blood-thirsty character he is in the first scene. He refuses to relent and show mercy for Antonio.
It is clear that Shylock has such a vile hatred of Antonio, as he will not accept any sum of money, ‘If every ducat is six thousand ducats… I would have my bond’, yet he is a man who values money more that his own daughter. He desperately wants Antonio to die painfully for his own selfish, sadistic gratification. This is sickening. When Portia win the court case, and finds fault in the bond, Shylock is punished for conspiring to kill a Christian. When he is ordered to give away his wealth and convert to Christianity, he is completely defeated, to the point that he wishes to be dead, ‘Nay take my life and all… ou do take the means whereby I live’.
It is difficult for the reader not to feel some sympathy for Shylock, as the things he values most have been taken from him. Overall, the reader is hardly invited to sympathise with Shylock’s character. Shylock does not have good relationships with other characters, which appears to be his own fault. The most sympathy felt is for his daughter because her father treats her with such little regard. It is saddening that Shylock is such a bitter, angry and hateful man. However, it is very difficult to sympathise with a man who is homicidal and who has such hateful intentions.