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Who is Shylock?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Shylock is a character in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, written around 1597. Many historians and critics are intrigued by this character because of his Jewish faith and the role he has in the play, where he is depicted as a greedy and merciless moneylender. He is one of the more problematic of Shakespeare's characters for modern readers, because of the way in which he is depicted as the villain of the piece; some people argue that he feeds antiSemitic ideas.

The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, and the plot is fairly simple. The title character, Antonio, is a wealthy merchant in Venice who agrees to loan money to a friend, Bassanio, to allow Bassanio to travel to woo the wealthy Portia. Antonio doesn't have any resources free, because all his money is tied up in ships at sea, so he approaches Shylock for a loan. Shylock, angered by Antonio's mockery of him earlier, agrees to loan the money but suggests that if Antonio cannot repay the loan on time, he will be permitted to extract a pound of flesh.

Antonio finds himself unable to repay the loan because his ships are lost at sea, and when Bassanio and Portia get wind of this, they travel separately back to Venice to rescue Antonio. Shylock refuses to accept Bassanio's offer to repay the loan, and the matter comes before a court. The case is brought to Portia while she is disguised as a lawyer, and she argues that the contract includes only a pound of flesh, so “no drop of Christian blood” may be spilled, or Shylock's property and life are forfeit for threatening the life of a citizen.

Portia divides Shylock's property between the Duke of Venice and Antonio, both of whom pardon the moneylender and return his property, on the condition that he convert to Christianity. Shylock agrees, and the play ends shortly afterwards.

The character is difficult and complex, and interpretations of him have changed over the years. Shakespeare himself probably never met anyone of the Jewish faith, given that Jews were forcibly expelled from England in 1290, and the play may have been inspired by a case in 1593, in which the Queen's Jewish physician was accused of poisoning her. For Shakespeare's contemporaries, Shylock was a villain who would have been easy to hate, exemplifying the stereotypical Jew, and the stereotype endures: “shylock” is slang for a ruthless moneylender today.

In defense of Shylock, people have argued that he is actually a complex character, and that Shakespeare captured his humanity in the play, especially in his famous speech which begins “Hath not a Jew eyes? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The speech is widely considered to be one of the more eloquent speeches in Shakespeare, humanizing Shylock and pointing out that he has been tormented throughout his life by the Christian community.

Life for Jews in Shakespeare's England would have been extremely difficult, as they had to live in hiding. Many converted to Christianity, or at least appeared to do so outwardly, to protect themselves, but they could not own property, and most careers were closed to them. They were forced in ghettos and forced to pay their Christian “protectors,” and they were the subject of lurid myths and legends which undoubtedly influenced Shakespeare's portrayal.

In the first part of the 1800s, depictions of Shylock began to change. While previous actors had simply portrayed him as a villain, 19th century actors began interpreting him as a tragic hero who fought for dignity, respect, and equal rights. Many actors argued that their interpretation of the role came from the play itself, suggesting that Shakespeare meant for the character to be seen as a complex person, rather than a simple villain. It is possible that Shakespeare's play was intended to humanize the Jewish community, although given the plethora of Jewish villains in Tudor theatre which Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by, this seems to be a dubious claim.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By vogueknit17 — On Nov 06, 2010

@helene55, It is true that many of Shakespeare's villains are complex, rather than transparent. It also stands to be said that when he wrote the character of Shylock, "antisemitism", as we know it, didn't exist, just as "racism" did not. while somewhat uncomfortable for modern readers, these issues must be viewed within the historical context, rather than merely with modern sensibilities.

By helene55 — On Nov 06, 2010

Shylock, like many of Shakespeare's characters, can be interpreted many ways. It is known that Shakespeare himself never intended these stories to be told in only one way, with certain characters always the villain, others always completely heroic, et cetera. In fact, many of his villains seem this way, including Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and Brutus in Julius Caesar.

By anon27540 — On Mar 02, 2009

Why did portia have to trick his father by disguising as a lawyer and why did she have to divide shylock's property to the duke and antonio?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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