What is the character of Shylock in Merchant of Venice?

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Courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shylock
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Image of Shylock After the Trial by John Gilbert (late 19th century)

Shylock is a character in Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice”. Shylock is one of the intriguing characters created by Shakespeare more so owing to his Jewish faith and his depiction as a greedy and ruthless moneylender. Shylock may be considered a problematic character as the interpretation of his complex personality has seen a change over a period of time.

What is the historical background of Shylock?

"The Merchant of Venice" which has Shylock playing the lead role was written by Shakespeare during 1596-1598. It is regarded both as a comedy and as a problem play in which good ultimately succeeds over evil. Shylock is a moneylender, of Jewish faith, in Venice. During those days, in medieval Europe, the Jews were largely engaged in the business of money lending. This was because they were debarred from entering most of the other professions. Besides, the Christians largely kept away from the profession of money lending as they considered it a sin to charge interest on lent money.


What is the role of Shylock in the Play "The Merchant of Venice"?

In Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice” Shylock is a moneylender of Jewish origin who happens to lend money to Antonio, his Christian rival. Shylock demands Antonio to pledge his pound of flesh as security for the borrowed money. In the meantime, Antonio becomes bankrupt and is unable to repay the loan. Shylock takes advantage of the situation and sees it as a chance to avenge his insult previously by Antonio. He demands Antonio’s pound of flesh in return for the unpaid loan. Shylock is enraged when he finds out about his daughter, Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo who is his rival Antonio’s friend and her conversion to Christianity. Further, Jessica also takes jewels and money from Shylock.


Is Shylock a Villain?

Shylock is an interesting and colorful character created by Shakespeare in his play “The Merchant of Venice”. He is portrayed as the villain of the play, being a merciless and greedy moneylender. Shylock is always calculating and views every aspect of life in terms of gains and money. His character would rarely evoke sympathy from the audience as he is a parasitical banker. Though portrayed as a villain, Shylock is not a hardcore villain of the classic type. Instead he is more of a comic villain as his mode of action is resentment and not treachery, characteristic of the professional villain. Shylock feels he is a victim of bad treatment by the Christians in Venice and seeks to avenge this mistreatment through Antonio. Thus Shylock is swayed to this action by strong feelings rather than treacherous villainy.


What is the relation between Shylock and Modern Antisemitism?

During the Middle Ages, English Jews were expelled from the country and it was only during Oliver Cromwell’s rule that the Jews were permitted to return. It was common for the Jews to be presented on stage as greedy moneylenders with hooked noses and sporting red wigs. In fact English society during this era was largely anti-Semitic, who viewed the Jews as greedy, cunning and evil. In fact, in 17th century Venice, Jews were forced to sport a red hat in public in order to be easily identifiable. In case of noncompliance to this rule, the Jews could be subject to death penalty. Shylock’s character in the play seems to incorporate the anti-Semitic tradition. In the beginning Shylock is vengeful and fails to understand the importance of mercy.


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