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It is impossible to know what Shakespeare’s intent was in creating the character of Shylock. It could be that he was using Shylock as an archetype to get laughs and evoke revulsion. Shakespeare may have also been responding to the current events of his time, the famous trial of a supposed Jewish traitor. Probably Shakespeare was never in Venice. Also, it is possible that he never met a Jew.
Shylock’s Jewish traits and stereotypical behavior mainly have been created basing on prejudices and common rumors about an unknown culture. Nevertheless, fears, myths, and Jews were present. A stereotype is a generalization about an individual or a group of individuals regardless of personal characteristics (Bonta). Even positive stereotypes linking people or a group of people to some specific positive feature can lead to negative consequences. Even before the play begins; Shylock has already been demonized as a Jew and an archetype.
People of Jewish origin have a record of being intimidated, excluded, and even persecuted. For example, in 1942, they were driven out of Spain and forced to convert to Christianity. They were mistreated and isolated by non-Jews surrounding them because of their race and religion. Repressive measures against them continued, and, in 1275, they were forbidden to be moneylenders. More edicts against them include the taxation of any Jewish person above the age of twelve and the wearing of identification badges.
Shylock, is a merchant in the city Venice who lends Antonio, a Christian, money on his friend’s behalf. Shylock is all at once a dark comic, an absolutist, a religious extremist who is surprisingly sentimental. He serves as both the evil character and the most crucial figure in the play. He is infuriated by his ill-treatment at the hands of Venice’s Christians. He plans to carry out his revenge by demanding Antonio’s flesh as payment (Arnold).
Shylock is quite human as seen in some part of the play even though he is seen as a red-eyed monster by the rest of the characters. His powerful expressions of hatred earned Shylock a place as one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable characters. He made himself to be unpleasant with the audience by declaring that he despised Antonio because of his religion, and he was getting him out of business.
Throughout the play and by extension, all Jews are represented as conniving, money loving and, at the very core, cruel. Shylock is far more often referred to as “the Jew” than by his name. His colleagues in the play compared him with a cur, a demon, and a dog. He is also refried to as “the exact devil incarnation” (Arnold). He is spit upon by Antonio, reviled by his servants, abandoned by his daughter, and ultimately undone by Portia. His daughter runs away and gets married symbolically leaving the Jewish faith and converting to Christianity.
The characters continually mock Shylock. Elizabethan theatergoers would have recognized Shylock as a Jew immediately. His bulbous nose, red wig, and an enormous cap undoubtedly labeled him as the “other” and an outsider (Arnold). This characterization dehumanizes and depersonalizes Shylock reducing him from a person to category. He is an outsider both literally and figuratively by being forced into the margins. This is without a doubt one of the most troubling and characteristic aspects of the “Merchant of Venice”.
A deeper look at the play shows that it is not just Shylock’s religion, which is a problem, but also the hypocrisy displayed by Christians in the play. Antonio, an outwardly upstanding Christian, is spiteful towards Shylock. In the last scene, Shakespeare had Shylock show another stereotype, which involves a murder that is a ritual. The play does not mention that Antonio’s blood would be used in any ritual. Nevertheless, the people would have associated this action with the myth where the Jews offer human sacrifices.
Shylock is a moneylender, who, through his business, makes it possible for his Christian customers to conduct their business and personal pursuits. Without his services, Bassanio could not win over Portia and the Venetian businesspersons could not finance their business ventures. In the end, Shylock’s greed leads to his ruin. He declares that he would be glad if his daughter died at his feet as long as money lay with her body.
Money is the standard by which everyone is judged. Shylock is mad at Antonio for lending money without charging interest. The bitter confrontation between Antonio and Shylock is traced in their different ways of lending money. Shylock knows that he is hated by Antonio and other Christians because he makes ample living through usury.
Antonio’s refusal to take an interest from his lenders is seen in the context of the play as generosity practiced by Christians, while Shylock is portrayed as a money thirsty beast (Bonta). However, Christian usury was business as usual by the time the play was created. He is left without a livelihood and in many ways without a life. Shakespeare’s creation of Shylock mirrored the sentiments, fears, and myths about the Jewish community that were commonly held in his day.
In conclusion, viewing the play from the modern point of view, Shylock is perceived both as a a fully portrayed human being and a stereotype. Ironically, it is due to the stereotypical isues in Shylock’s character that a lot of people are against of the “Merchant of Venice”. They view it as an anti-semitic work that is rater understandable reaction. However, Shylock is not a one-faced scoundrel; it is a complex personage that will perhaps never be understood in full.
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