Monday, October 31, 2016
The Merchant of Venice- Character Analysis- Shylock
Shylock is the most vivid and memorable character in The Merchant of Venice, and he is one of Shakespeare's greatest dramatic creations. On stage, it is Shylock, who makes the play. Is he a bloodthirsty villain? Or is he a man "more sinned against than sinning"? One of the reasons that such questions arise is that there are really two stage Shylocks in the play: first, there is the stage "villain" who is required for the plot; second, there is the human being who suffers the loss of his daughter, his property, and, very importantly for him, his religion.
Shylock's function in this play is to be the obstacle, the man who stands in the way of the love stories; such a man is a traditional figure in romantic comedies. Something or someone must impede young, romantic love; here, it is Shylock and the many and various ways that he is linked to the three sets of lovers. The fact that he is a Jew is, in a sense, accidental. Shakespeare wanted to contrast liberality against selfishness — in terms of money and in terms of love. There was such a figure available from the literature of the time, one man who could fulfill both functions: this man would be a usurer, or moneylender, with a beautiful daughter that he held onto as tightly as he did his ducats. Usury was forbidden to Christians by the church of the Middle Ages, and as a consequence, money lending was controlled by the Jews; as a rule, it was usually the only occupation, which the law allowed to them. As a result, a great deal of medieval literature produced the conventional figure of the Jewish moneylender, usually as a minor character, but also too, as a major character.
It is from this medieval literary tradition that Shakespeare borrows the figure of Shylock. When Shylock leaves the courtroom, he is stripped of all that he has. He is a defeated man. Yet, we cannot feel deep sympathy for him. Shakespeare's intention was not to make Shylock a tragic figure; instead, Shylock was meant to function as a man, who could be vividly realized as the epitome of selfishness; he must be defeated in this romantic comedy. In a sense, it is Shakespeare's own brilliance, which led him to create Shylock as almost too human. Shylock is powerfully drawn, perhaps too powerfully for this comedy, but his superb dignity is admirable, despite the fact that we must finally condemn him. Perhaps the poet W. H. Auden has given us our best clue as to how we must deal with Shylock: "Those to whom evil is done," he says, "do evil in return." This explains in a few words much of the moneylender's complexity and our complex reactions toward him.