Shylock As The Villain In William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice

3053 words - 12 pages

Shylock as the Villain in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare wrote 'The Merchant of Venice' in about 1597. It
was first performed by The Chamberlain's Men at the Theatre
Shoreditch. The Merchant of Venice was in the repertory of
Shakespeare's company before they took up residence at the Globe in
1599. The play was written as a comedy, but has become a serious
drama.

In order to answer the question it is vital to look at the pervading
views of the society when it was first performed. Ridiculing a
stereotypical Jew was fashionable in Elizabethan drama because it
reflected the commonly held view that Jews were to blame for
everything from economic problems to child murder and the plague. In
1597 England was a Christian country and many disliked, often despised
Jews. At the time that Shakespeare wrote 'The Merchant of Venice' Jews
were exiled from Britain and many Christian European countries, unless
they converted to Christianity. The character of Shylock therefore
confirmed the audience's view of history and anti-Semitic feelings. A
modern audience, unaware of the history may have a different view of
Shylock. The Elizabethan audience would have most definitely thought
that Shylock was a villain and would have felt no sympathy towards
him. The Elizabethan Christians particularly disliked Jews because of
their profession of lending money and charging interest, which was
Shylock's profession.

Another reason for resentment towards Jews was that in 1593, Queen
Elizabeth's Jewish doctor, Roderigo Lopez, was accused of trying to
poison her. The trial was widely publicised and is thought to have
inspired a popular revival of a play called 'The Jew of Malta' by
Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe's Jew, Barabas, inspires no sympathy; he
is most definitely a villain.

In 'The Merchant of Venice' Shakespeare seeks to challenge the
prejudice of the Elizabethans who believed that Christians were always
right and Jews were always wrong. Shylock shows both villainous and
victimized actions.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Shylock is equated with the name devil:

'The devil can cite scripture for his purpose

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek'

Antonio, who is trying to persuade Shylock to lend the money to him
for Bassanio, gives Shylock the name 'devil'. Antonio is comparing
Shylock with the devil, who is the antithesis of good, by saying that
even the devil who is evil is prepared to use scripture which is holy
for his own purposes. Shylock, being a Jew, would have been disturbed
and insulted by Antonio's comment. The devil is the prince of
darkness; he is the personification of evil. And this is what Antonio
has named Shylock, for what reason? Because Shylock is a Jew. This
would have been an extreme insult for Shylock....

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