Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice contains an array of interesting and complex characters. From the alternately generous and grasping Antonio to the alternately love stricken and exploitative Bassanio to the vulnerable and manipulative Portia, this play has an abundance of multi-layered personalities.
However, one of the most intriguing characters is also the most oft-vilified and minimized in the work. This character, Shylock, is certainly just as compelling as any of the aforementioned—if not more so, because he acts as the catalyst for the majority of the interesting sections of the play (i.e. The flesh pact, the court scene etcetera). It is certainly undemanding to simply label Shylock a stereotypical stock character: the greedy, vindictive and bloodthirsty villain. Surely, there are more than enough instances available to label him as such (1.3.38-49, 3.1.59-62), 3.1.372-375). However, there also exists another possible, yet neglected, description of Shylock's character: the aggrieved, marginalized and putupon minority. As the text repeatedly reminds us, Shylock is Jew; moreover, a Jew in a predominantly Christian Venice. He is an individual that is consistently attacked at every opportunity by supposedly goodly Christian characters (1.3.103-105, 108-110, 2.8.15-17). It is to be expected that someone living in those peculiar circumstances would lash out when the chance eventually arises—in this case, Antonio is the target of the wrath. So, to those who would argue that Shylock is a mean-spirited, unforgiving and avaricious character, I would respond: of course he is. But he can also be seen as a distressed, violated and desperate one. Shylock is easily as complex as the other main characters in The Merchant of Venice as he is, by turns, an unsympathetic vengeful tormentor and a sorrowful and sympathetic mournful victim.
To prove this dichotomy, we will examine Shylock's statements to Salarino in Act 3, scene 1, lines 49-67. It can be said that, in regards to Antonio, greed and petty revenge are all that interest Shylock. The lines preceding Shylock's statement consist of a question posed by Salarino. Essentially, “why take Antonio's flesh?” Shylock responds with a predictably acerbic and inelegant answer: “To bait a fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” Here, Shylock shows himself the consummate villain. He has absolutely no use for Antonio's flesh yet he demands it in a display of utmost sadism. He regards the man's flesh as nothing better than fish bait. He also admits that spiting Antonio will be the ultimate satisfaction; by saying that the flesh would feed his revenge, he likened his vengeance to the appetite of a creature—one that would consume the flesh the way a fish would consume bait...an extremely unsavory, yet telling, comparison. In lines 50 through 54, Shylock shares his...