January 21, 1994 Shylock-Victim or Villain
In 1594 the Earl of Essex, an English Nobleman who lived during the Elizabethan period in England, was actively involved in the persecution and trials of Roderigo Lopez. Lopez was a Jew of Portuguese descent, who was wrongly accused of attempting to poison the Queen of England, for reasons never fully explained. Lopez, being the Queen’s royal physician, was in no position to defend himself once he was accused. Essex, who provided the evidence also presided over the trial of Lopez, leaving Lopez little chance of survival. The innocent Jew was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Tyburn, England for all to witness.
The story of Roderigo Lopez is similar to the story of Shylock, although, Palmer tells us “It is not suggested that Shakespeare in portraying Shylock, had any political or social intentions” ( 112-13). Both Jews were placed in time where “anti-Semitism was in fashion” (Palmer 113), and both thrown into court where they would be tried unjustly. The story of Roderigo Lopez sets the tone for The Merchant of Venice. Lopez’ incident occurred in 1594, The Merchant of Venice was written only two years later. Anti-Semitism was prevalent during Shakespeares’ time, and therefore we must understand that it was as easy for him to make a Jewish man the villain as it would be for us to make a Nazi the villain. According to Sylvan Barnet “The Merchant of Venice shows the broad outline of a comedy (not merely a play with jests, but a play that ends happily). . . the villain in the comedy must be entirely villainous, or, rather, comically villainous; he cannot for a moment gain the audience’s sympathy” (1). Shylock has often been portrayed as the villain in The Merchant of Venice. From being more concerned with his ducats rather than his daughter, to demanding his pound of flesh, Shylock fits perfectly into the mold of the villain. However, with reference to Barnet’s comment “he cannot for a moment gain the audience’s sympathy” (1), Shylock oversteps the boundaries of his villainous character. The audience cannot and would not have rooted for Shylock during Shakespeare’s lifetime, yet, now we do. Shylock is merely a victim of anti-Semitism. Although victorious in his bond, Shylock was raped of his lands, his faith and his pride. Shylock not the necessarily the villain, rather the victim.
Shakespeare takes his time before introducing Shylock, however, when he does, he shows us a decent businessman.
May you stead me? Will you pleasure me?
Shall I know your answer?
Three thousand ducats for three months–
and Antonio bound.
Your answer to that.
Antonio is a good man.
Have you heard any imputation to the
Ho no, no, no, no…my meaning in saying
he is a good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient. Yet his means are in supposition : he hath
an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies;
I understand moreover upon the Rialto he hath a third
at Mexico, a fourth for England, and other ventures he
hath squandered abroad. But ships are but boards,
sailors but men–there be land-rats and water-rats,
land-thieves and water-thieves–I mean pirates-and
then there is peril of waters, winds, and rocks. The
man is, notwithstanding, sufficient. Three thousand
ducats–I think I may take his bond (I. iii. 7-26.).
Through this entire exchange Shylock says that Antonio is financially fit. Shylock knows that Antonio is good for the three thousand ducats. Then, as any good businessman would do, he considers how Antonio, a merchant, has all of his ships at sea. He talks of the dangers of sea and how Antonio may not get all of his ships back, if so, he will not have the money. It is here that we begin to get a glimpse of Shylocks’ evilness. “The man is, not withstanding, sufficient. Three thousand ducats–I think I may take his bond” (I. i. 25-26.). Shylock realizes his opportunity, he can profit from this venture. Shakespeare begins to create his villain, we have no choice but to hate this man.Shakespeare continues to build his villain by giving Shylock an aside in which he reveals his hatred for Antonio, because he is a Christian and he lends money