The Shylock as a selfish, money-oriented bigot

The play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare explores many themes, including revenge, greed, mercy, and prejudice. The character of Shylock helps the reader understand these themes. The play is set in 16th century Venice, an important trading port, and tells the story of Antonio, a wealthy merchant who makes a deal with Shylock so his best friend, Bassanio, can marry the woman he loves, Portia, a well-to-do heiress. However, when Antonio cannot pay up, Shylock tries to get revenge for all the abuse he has suffered. We feel ambivalent towards Shylock as he makes us feel both sympathetic towards his struggle and the abuse he’s suffered, and critical of the malicious ways he tries to take revenge on those who have wronged him.When we first meet Shylock, he is doing his job: giving someone a loan. This quickly introduces that we will continue to see Shylock and his relationship with money throughout the play. Bassanio tries to convince Shylock to lend Antonio money. However, as his ships are all at sea, he has little money at the time to pay him back. Shylock is doubtful of the security of Antonio’s ships but lends the money anyway. However, he rejects Bassanio’s dinner invite, saying: “I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”This makes Shylock sound narrow-minded and cruel, making the reader feel critical towards him. This scene also introduces the themes of greed and prejudice in the play. The only situations in which Shylock will socialise with Christians is when he can make a profit. This characterisation of Shylock as a selfish, money-oriented bigot continues throughout the play.He later says in an aside, referring to Antonio:”I hate him for he is Christian”Though this statement is intolerant and discriminatory, it quite simply and honestly tells you of Shylock’s true feelings towards Antonio. There was a strong rivalry between Jews and Christians in Venice at the time. Shylock, a Jew, very much despises all Christians, especially Antonio. This again highlights the theme of prejudice. At this stage in the play, the audience is meant to dislike Shylock.We continue to feel critical of Shylock when we meet his reckless daughter, Jessica, and learn of her intentions to run away and elope with her Christian lover, Lorenzo. When speaking to a servant who also plans on leaving Shylock, she is saddened but doesn’t blame him, saying that “our house is hell”. She mentions on multiple occasions being ashamed of being her father’s daughter. She says:    “But though I am a daughter to his blood / I am not to his manners”She thinks of herself as Shylock’s child only biologically; she does not care for him at all. Her opinions make the audience question Shylock’s character even more. How cruel and calloused must he be for his own flesh and blood to think so lowly of him? She goes on to trick him, with the help of Lorenzo and his friends, and runs away, taking a great amount of Shylock’s money and jewels with her. Her final words as she leaves confirm her attitude towards Shylock.     “I have a father, you a daughter, lost.”This is the last interaction we see between the pair, and it certainly doesn’t improve our view of Shylock. The audience continues to be critical of Shylock as he proves that he doesn’t really have any positive relationships with other people; not just in business, but in her personal life as well.However, we begin to feel sympathy for Shylock when he talks about his bond with Antonio. He talks about the common humanity of both Christians and Jews. He explains the physical similarities – “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”- but also the way that Christians have treated him so badly to the point that he needs to remind them that he too is a human being and shares the same “hands, organs, dimensions, senses” as the Christians. He then goes on to explain his understandable, albeit flawed, reasoning for wanting to get back at Antonio:”The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go / hard but I will better the instruction.”He says that he will learn from the Christian’s example and seek revenge.  He has been wronged, attacked, and belittled by the Christians, so why shouldn’t he do the same? Though the audience has been on the side of the Christians up to now, this monologue illustrates that the conflict is two-sided. He has been taught the horrors of revenge, and he simply wishes to ‘return the favour’. It’s as if he no longer cares about being the bigger person, he is simply fed up with being treated like dirt. The audience starts to sympathise with, and even pity, Shylock. He has gone from being the villain to being the victim, but it doesn’t last long. As he soon learns that Antonio’s ships have been reported lost and wastes no time in getting Antonio arrested and setting up a court date.    The first scene of Act 4 is our last with Shylock. The bond has been defaulted on, and Shylock wants what his lawfully his: a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The scene begins in the Duke’s palace, where the court proceedings would take place. Before Shylock enters, we hear the Duke’s opinion of him. He calls him “an inhuman wretch” and says that he is “uncapable of pity” and “void and empty from any dram of mercy”. He is obviously not particularly fond of Shylock, but this is probably because the Duke is a Christian and therefore is biased towards Antonio. When Shylock enters, each of Antonio’s friends attempts to reason with Shylock, appealing to his humanity and conscience and asking him to show mercy. They even offer him double the initial sum, but he refuses every plea and is very set on getting what he wants. He refuses to even tell them his reasons for wanting Antonio’s flesh, saying that he just has “a certain loathing” for him. Bassanio again argues with Shylock: “Do all men kill the things they do not love?” Shylock continues to dismiss their arguments and demands the pound of flesh as his property, and due to him by law. The audience has now become critical of Shylock once again as we continue to things from the Christian point of view.Soon after, Portia appears, disguised as a judge in order to fight Antonio’s case. She, like the others, appeals to Shylock to show mercy. She explains that mercy cannot be forced, it must be willingly given: “The quality of mercy is not strained” and though Shylock simply wants justice, the deal to be fulfilled, she pleas that justice and mercy should work hand in hand, saying that earthly power is most godly “when mercy seasons justice”. Shylock is still adamant that he gets his pound of flesh.Portia soon reveals a loophole in the contract, making all of Shylock’s arguments futile. He has lost, and the audience may start to feel sympathetic again as they see him vulnerable and broken. He is then denied the financial payment of his bond, as Portia insists that he shall have the flesh he desired:    “The words expressly are a pound of flesh.”Portia reveals another trap for Shylock, saying that if he tries to kill Antonio, he will be stripped of all his wealth, and may be killed. Antonio, despite his previous abuse towards him, requests that Shylock is shown some mercy, taking only half of his wealth but he must also immediately convert to Christianity. They seem to take joy in stripping Shylock of his precious beliefs. This shows that it is not just Shylock who has religious prejudices, but Antonio and his friends too. Neither side is innocent.In ‘The Merchant of Venice’, we feel both sympathetic and critical towards the character of Shylock as we see his “ancient grudge” with Antonio come to an end. Though both men were narrow-minded and bigoted towards each other, Shylock is the one who suffered in the end. He also illustrates the play’s themes very well. Although he was treated awfully by the Christians, his malicious ways and greed for revenge led him to his demise. The Christians seem to get away with their intolerance. This has uncanny parallels with the way racial and religious groups are treated in society today. Victims of prejudice are abused for speaking up and trying to fight back. While every conflict is two-sided, it is almost always the minorities that pay the price in the end.