‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare is about a man called Shylock, he is Jewish. Throughout the play he is subject to severe racial hatred from the Christian people of Venice, Venice was primarily a Christian state so being of a different religious background, being a Jew was frowned upon. Shylock was a usurer which in fact added to his problems, a usurer is someone who loans money and takes back interest. A Christian participating in this in Venice would have been considered an abomination in their faith; it was acceptable in the Jewish faith however the Christians hated Shylock for it.
I feel sympathy towards Shylock before the court case because he was terrorised for being Jewish. The play begins with Antonio, the merchant, feeling very depressed. He struggles to understand why he is feeling this way but immediately cheers up when Bassanio returns. Bassanio is very careless with money and is said to be in a tough financial position: “I have disabled mine estate” Bassanio wants to borrow money and use it to go and court the fair lady Portia.
Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan of money but Antonio does not have any money because it is all on his ships. The pair are good friends and no one else would lend Bassanio the money because of his poor name financially. Antonio wants to help his friend Bassanio so tells him to borrow money under his name and pay back what he can. They then go to Shylock for a loan. Despite Shylock been treated terribly by the pair almost every day: “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose”.
He decides to loan the money without taking interest but if the money is not paid back fully in three months, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as compensation, Bassanio is shocked but immediately Antonio agrees to the terms as he thinks that his ships will return on time for him to be able to pay for the loan. They agree and Shylock gives Bassanio the money. To add to Shylock’s misery his own servant, Launcelot, and his daughter, Jessica, leave him. Launcelot leaves Shylock to go and work for Bassanio.
There was no evidence that Shylock was a bad master but Launcelot leaves him because he is a Jew. When Shylock is invited to Bassanio’s feast he asks Jessica to look after his house, Jessica has no intention in staying and leaves to marry Lorenzo. When leaving Jessica precious ring given to Shylock by his late wife and money. Jessica loves her father but feels she can’t stay because he is Jewish. “Ashamed to be my father’s child” I feel sorry for Shylock during the court proceedings because the whole court conspires against him even though Antonio had not fulfilled his promise.
The Duke opens the court case saying that he pities Antonio because Shylock is: “Inhuman wretch uncapable of pity” During the court case Shylock receives many pleas for mercy from Bassanio, The Duke and Balthazar. He insists that they should show mercy and points to the many slaves the Duke and Bassanio have this highlights their hypocorism. The Duke, once again, tries to derail Shylock’s attempts at getting his bond by saying that he is just trying to terrify Antonio with his performance and that he will forgive him at the last minute: We all expect a gentle answer Jew! Shylock is not interested and still insists that he will have his bond.
If his bond is not granted then the decision will make a mockery of Venice and the justice system. Bassanio then tries to convince Shylock to forget the bond by arguing with him, Antonio insists it is no use as it would be impossible to soften Shylock’s: “Jewish Heart” Bassanio, who is now financially stable offers Shylock twice the amount of money first owed but Shylock laughs at the offer and insists that he wouldn’t accept 6 times that amount.
The Duke then asks Shylock why he expects mercy if he does not give it himself but Shylock replies that he has done no wrong and will have his bond! When Nerissa enters the court room dressed as a clerk, Gratiano curses Shylock saying he is: “Inexecrable dog, whose desires are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous” Once again the abuse Shylock is subject to is out in the open and it is clear to see why he is so desperate to get his bond. Balthazar (Portia) grants Shylock permission to have his bond.
Shylock is delighted and is just about to take the flesh when he is stopped by Balthazar, who then explains that in the bond it does indeed say that Shylock can take the flesh but if he were to shed one drop of Christian blood his house and possessions would be seized and given to the state of Venice. Shylock then says that he will not take the flesh but will take Bassanio’s money instead. Balthazar stops him again and claims that Shylock wanted justice so will either have his bond or nothing; he will have his bond or nothing!
Shylock tries to leave the court but is stopped by Balthazar again. Shylock is told that Venetian law states that if any “Alien” (Foreigner) sought the life of any Venetian citizen the citizen subject of this harmful desire would be entitled to half of the Foreigner’s possessions and the other half would be given to the Venetian state. Adding to Shylock’s humiliation, he is ordered to become a Christian or face the death penalty… He leaves the court with nothing. I sympathise with Shylock after the court case because he loses everyone he loved and everything that he worked for.
First he was unable to receive his bond because the whole court conspired against him. He was then ordered to convert to a Christian so he lost his identity. His daughter left him so he had no family comfort to help deal with the aftermath of the court proceedings. Shylock was left with no possessions as they were all lost at the court case. We can see Shylock is hungry for revenge but he does not achieve this and ends up at rock bottom: “Thou call’dst me dog … But since I am dog, beware my fangs. ”
Shylock is so desperate for revenge during the court proceedings that his actions arguably led to him being persecuted. Finally it seems that everyone else in the play had a happy ending apart from Shylock. His whole life has collapsed beyond control all because of racial prejudice! Throughout ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shylock is treated as sub-human. In the end he does not get his bond, his daughter has run away from him to marry a Christian, his servant had left to work for a Christian and he is forced to convert to a Christian. In light of all of this many feel sympathy for Shylock, I certainly do!
In the early stage performances of the play Shylock is portrayed as a monster and many audiences had no sympathy at all for Shylock but, nowadays, in general many people are greatly empathic towards Shylock. This could be for a number of reasons such as: changing attitude towards religion or a changing society. I personally think that this change in attitudes is mostly down to the holocaust in World War 2. This was the mass extermination of the people the Nazi party did not like -Jewish people in the main. – After this many people all over the world began to accept Jewish people for who they are.
Actors also changed the way they play Shylock, perhaps trying to address thousands of years of hatred. The actors play a much more vulnerable and noble Shylock making the audiences show Sympathy towards him: “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, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? ” This famous speech by Shylock may be getting put into action in modern day society!