William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice - A General Introduction to the Play and the Character of Shylock

The Merchant of Venice, comedy by English playwright William Shakespeare, written around 1596 is regarded by some scholars as the strongest and most successful of Shakespeare's early comedies. It well illustrates author’s custom of going back to old tales for his plots. Some of the medieval manuscripts, like the Gesta Roman orum (Deeds of the Romans) were storehouses of literary material to thousands of writers who followed. There is also a historical basis for the play in the high feeling toward the Jew as a race. This feeling was particularly strong from the fourteenth century until the middle of the Seventeenth. It was unjust, but it is a historical fact.

The original title given by Shakespeare was A Jew of Venice. The change to The Merchant of Venice is indicative of the fact that the author wished to throw to the front the other character. Technically, Antonio is the main character; dramatically, Shylock is. The play is a comedy, for the main character is extricated from his difficulties. Recognizing that the action rests upon the tragic, various critics have termed The Merchant of Venice a tragicomedy. The play, which is set partly in Venice, Italy, features three main characters: Antonio, Shylock, and Portia. Antonio represents the best class of Venice. He is protected by law; he has a host of friends, among whom is Bassanio. Shylock, on the other hand, is a resident of the Jewish Ghetto, hounded by law, hated by Christians, yet a power on the Rialto. Portia, a rich heiress, is in love with Bassanio, and he with her. Unable to present his suit according to custom, Bassanio appeals to Antonio, with the result that his friend insists upon borrowing money to equip a retinue to accompany Bassanio to Belmont on his wooing. Antonio borrows the money from the Jew, Shylock. So sure is he that his ships will be import inside of three months, that he signs a bond, pledging a pound of his own flesh if the debt is not paid when due. Shylock prosecutes the merchant Antonio for failure to repay a loan that Antonio had contracted on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Shylock threatens to cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh, a penalty originally inserted in the contract as a jest. The two must resolve their situation in court. Meanwhile, Portia has proposed a riddle, stating that she can be won in marriage only if a suitor is able to guess the one chest of three in which her portrait is hidden. Her lover, Bassanio, chooses correctly. For his sake, Portia goes to the courtroom disguised as a lawyer to defend Antonio from Shylock’s demands. She defeats Shylock by pointing out that although he has a right to a pound of Antonio's flesh, he is not entitled to a single drop of his blood. The plot that centers in the bond has its roots in the beautiful example of what one friend will do for another.

There is excellent opportunity in this play to study characterization and Shylock's character is an abiding interest for us who provides myriad opportunities for deeply examining character and motivation. Few other pieces of literature hold such complex characters that appear as infrequently as Shylock, who surfaces only in four scenes, but whose mark is indelible. Because of the complexity of the themes and characters, issues involving stereotypes and racism, as well as heavy sexual innuendo, The Merchant of Venice are recommended for mature readers. An important element of Shylock's character is his literal-mindedness. In his mind, a contract is a contract, and if it is broken the letter of the law must be carried out. Mercy cannot be permitted to soften justice. In his insistence on a pound of flesh, Shylock believes he is holding Antonio to the truth. However, Shylock’s literalness also forces him to concede to Portia’s argument that he has no claim to Antonio’s blood.

For the character of Shylock, Shakespeare drew from a long tradition of folktales that relate the story of a creditor who tries and fails to extract a pound of human flesh as payment of a debt. Like the hero-villain Barabas in English dramatist Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta (1589?), Shylock is a Jew. He is portrayed in striking contrast with the other characters, who are Christians. Shylock is frugal and preoccupied with making and keeping money; he hoards it and treasures it above his personal relationships. He views the Christians’ attitude toward money as frivolous and irresponsible. In contrast to Shylock, Bassanio uses money for love and beauty instead of for the accumulation of wealth. The chest he chooses in answer to Portia’s riddle is neither the one made of silver nor the one of gold, but the one made of lead. His rejection of the gold and silver containers in favor of a lead one, within whose dull exterior lie the riches of Portia's portrait, symbolizes the fact that, for him, 'all that glisters (glistens) is not gold.'

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock has long been fodder for debate among scholars. By Shakespeare’s time, Jews had been officially banned from England for centuries. Because of this, they had come to represent to many citizens of the time a sinister unknown. Shylock’s inability to grant mercy to Antonio and his tendency to value the letter of the law over benevolence are generally abhorrent to modern audiences. However, Shakespeare was too intelligent and too much of an artist to make his Shylock purely one dimensional; the character is complex and justifiably cautious in a world that does not welcome him. Much of the interest and tension of the play lies in the fact that he is simultaneously villainous and sympathetic.

Reference:1.Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays
                     2.Hawkins, The Life of Edmund Kean
                     3.T. Lelyveld, The Shylock on the Stage
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