Shylock is a Jewish moneylender, father to Jessica, enemy to Antonio, and one of the most complex characters of The Merchant of Venice – and arguably of all of Shakespeare's work.
Over the years, theater and film productions of the play have portrayed Shylock in various ways. As literary critic Ann Barton points out in The Riverside Shakespeare, "Shylock has sometimes been presented as the devil incarnate, sometimes as a comic villain gabbling absurdly about ducats and daughters. He has also been sentimentalized as a wronged and suffering father nobler by far than the people who triumph over him."
In other productions, Shylock is portrayed as a justifiably angry man: he is hated by the Venetians; despised for his religion, culture, and occupation; betrayed by his daughter; and ultimately undone by the very city in which he lives. You could argue that Shylock's hatred and desire for vengeance is a natural result of his circumstances. In the 2004 film adaptation of Merchant, Al Pacino's famous portrayal of Shylock is sympathetic and emphasizes his victimization and humanity.
Throughout the play, Shylock's attitude toward money and human relationships undergoes some scrutiny. When we hear about Shylock's response to Jessica's elopement, it seems like he's more worried about the gold Jessica stole than the fact that his daughter is gone. Solanio tells us that Shylock screamed "'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! / Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!" (2.8.2). Hmm. Sure sounds like Shylock is more concerned about his money than his daughter, right?
But, later, when we actually see Shylock talking to Tubal about Jessica's elopement, it seems like Shylock isn't as materialistic as Solanio makes him out to be. Check out Shylock's response to the news that Jessica traded an important family heirloom:
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my
turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3.1.14)
The turquoise ring Jessica discarded is important to Shylock because it was a gift from his dead wife, not because it's worth a lot of money. So here, we can see that Shylock isn't exactly the money-grubbing villain he's been made out to be.
Shylock's pained response to Jessica's actions reveal that he is deeply human, a point that he makes at a pivotal moment in the play, when Salerio and Solanio taunt him with Jessica's elopement:
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? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. 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 villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction. (3.1.6)
Here Shylock insists on the fact that Jews and Christians share a common humanity. He also exposes the hypocrisy of the Christian characters who are always talking about love and mercy but then go out of their way to alienate Shylock because he is Jewish and different.
Yet as powerful as this speech is, elsewhere in the play Shylock tends to emphasize the differences between Jews and Christians. When Bassanio invites him to dinner, Shylock mutters "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you" (1.3.8). Is Shylock just being hateful, or is his disdain justifiable? We know Shylock has been abused in the past (he's been trash-talked, spit upon, called a dog, and worse), and it seems like there's not a scene that goes by in which some character isn't hurling anti-Semitic insults.
Even though we can see that Shylock is a victim of bigotry, he often makes it hard for us to pity him entirely. Shylock is often rude and base in his interactions. He's abrupt with his daughter and mean to his servant, and his house is described as a "hell" on more than one occasion. Plus, he wants Antonio dead and doggedly pursues his "bond" (a pound of Antonio's flesh) when the Christian merchant is unable to pay back his loan. (Read more about this in "Symbols.")
Even if critics can't agree on how to interpret Shylock, one thing is certain: the man is an outsider who is alienated from just about everyone – even his own daughter, who can't wait to run away. By the end of the dramatic courtroom scene, Shylock is a broken man – he's humiliated in court, stripped of much of his wealth, and forced to convert to Christianity. How are we supposed to read this? Are we meant to sympathize with Shylock? Are we supposed to think that his forced conversion is a good thing? What do you think?Timeline