In William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the character Shylock is portrayed as an evil villain who insists for Antonio’s pound of flesh as the collateral for the inability to pay off his debt. While this punishment is extremely cruel and unusual, it was a legally binding pact that should have been upheld. However, through a loophole, Shylock ends up losing everything he holds dear and cherishes.
Through the loss of his wealth and damage to his reputation as a money lender, his daughter Jessica running away to marry a Christian named Lorenzo, and Antonio’s requirement that he relinquishes his Jewish faith, Shylock has become a victim of the Venetian legal system and the hatred of others despite his insistence for obtaining the pound of flesh. One of the unjust punishments rendered to Shylock at the trial was the forfeiture of half of his wealth and the absurd criticisms he received for his practices of charging interest on his loans as a money lender.
Throughout his life Shylock had amassed sizable wealth through the interest he charged on his loans, yet was frequently criticized for doing so because the Christians felt it was sinful to do so. This unfairly singled out Shylock for doing a necessary service, and when he tried to justify his business practices by citing a biblical example of Jacob and the sheep, Antonio warns his friend Bassanio “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. / An evil soul producing holy witness / Is like a villain with a smiling check, / A goodly apple rotten at the heart” (Act I Scene iii: 95-99).
Shylock is providing a necessary service to Venetian commerce because without the prospect of interest payments no one would ever lend money, but is scorned even as he is doing a favor for Antonio, the man who mocked him openly at the Rialto. This prejudice towards Shylock’s profession and wealth culminates in the trial, where Antonio acts as if he is being merciful towards Shylock by cancelling half of his wealth going to the state in exchange for him to “become a Christian; / The other, that he do record a gift/ Here in the court, of all he dies possessed, / Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter” (Act IV Scene i: 379-382).
Antonio’s “act” of mercy allows him to take half of Shylock’s wealth even though he could not hold his end of the bargain, which cripples his finances and his ability to give out loans. Due to his necessary business practices, Shylock is unfairly singled out and forced to forfeit half his wealth and his business out of the spite of the other characters. Even though this example is not a result of the trial verdict, the loss of his daughter Jessica is another example of how one of Shylock’s losses display his victimization.
Shylock was a good father who deeply cares and loves his daughter, but Jessica reciprocated these feelings with disdain and treachery. Even though it was wrong to refuse to pay for his daughter’s dowry if she were to marry a Christian, it was an understandable request considering his devotion to his Jewish faith and the way that the Venetian Christians treated him. However, Jessica planned to escape and marry Lorenzo more out of spite for her father because she is “ashamed to be my father’s child! But though I am a daughter to his blood / I am not to his manners” (Act II Scene iii: 17-19). This signifies that Jessica was more than willing to abandon her father because of the disdain she had for him, even though he did nothing that warranted such loathing. Jessica disrespected her father by saying these things, but deeply wronged him by stealing a lot of valuable jewels and ducats to serve as a dowry to Lorenzo. The egregious nature of her theft went beyond the value of what she stole to her desire to be completely emancipated from their father/daughter relationship.
She knew that there was no turning back from that point, and went ahead with her plan to leave Shylock while nothing he did warranted such a drastic and treacherous act by Jessica. In addition to the two aforementioned examples of Shylock’s victimization, the most crucial and tragic example of his unfair treatment was the verbal abuse and discrimination by the other characters towards Shylock concerning his devout Jewish faith. Throughout the play, the other characters like Antonio, Gratiano, and Portia ridicule Shylock’s embrace of his Jewish identity and use it to manipulate his reputation and the interpretation of the law.
One example was when Antonio exclaims that after Shylock’s kindness to not charge interest on the loan that the “Hebrew will turn Christian. He grows kind” (Act I Scene iii: 177). This statement symbolizes the harsh stigmas and stereotypes associated with being Jewish in Renaissance Venice, as Shylock’s kindness is shocking to Antonio simply because he expects his Jewish enemy to treat him with treachery and contempt. These misconceptions held by the Christians are shown by the constant referral to Shylock’s belief in Judaism as if his beliefs were his only defining characteristics and made him a bad person.
His Jewish faith was taken advantage of by Portia at the trial scene, which trapped Shylock into insisting for his compensation and refusing the ducats. When she states that the contract makes no mention of blood being drawn, Portia, in disguise as a lawyer named Balthazar, makes it known to Shylock that if he “dost shed/ One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate/ Unto the state of Venice” (Act IV Scene i: 300-303).
To make matters worse, his Jewish faith excluded him from being considered as a Venetian citizen, so his attempt to exact the pound of flesh is considered a threat to Antonio’s life and should be subjugated to losing half his wealth to Antonio, the other half to the state, and that his “life lies in the mercy/ Of the Duke only ‘gainst all other voice” (Act IV Scene i: 347-348).
Despite the cruelness of the penalty for not being able to pay the loan back, Shylock is more than legally entitled to his recompense, and through the exploitation of a loophole and his Jewish faith, he ends up losing the thing that matters more than anything to him: his Jewish identity.
Portia insists that her interpretation of the law is the same justice that Shylock seeks, but it is very far from being just because one man lost everything he valued and cherished simply because of his religious identity. Even though he is supposed to be portrayed as the treacherous and evil villain in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a victim of the Venetian legal system and the other characters in the play.
He loses his faith, daughter, and wealth and stature due to his position as a money lender, while everyone else in the play benefits from his misfortunes. While many people tend to take this play as anti-Semitic, I think it shows the hypocrisy displayed by many of the authority figures in the Church at that time: if Christ’s message was to love the outcasts and downtrodden, how can they justify their treatment of Shylock with their Christian faith?