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Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2021


Merchant of Venice was written during one of the high points of English supremacy and prosperity (1594 – 1597). In this context, it is evident that William Shakespeare would narrate the story from the context of the riches. The central characters are all wealthy personalities and this depicts the overall psychological aspects of the state. This state psyche indicates a trend of religious polarization that was come full circle during the mid 20th century with the rise of Nazi Germany. However, Shakespeare, being the absolute genius of an artist was able to conceptualize the basic norms of this sentiment and presented his villain of this play as a monster, for the jingoistic mass, and a victimized individual, for the more humane part of the society (Dos, p. 338).

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Though Shylock is indeed the villain of the story it has been made quite obvious though being an oppressor it is seen that he is also the oppressed at the same time. This was made obvious when it was seen him commenting the most poetic and sensitive parts of the play by saying “Hath not a Jew’s eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs/ dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with / the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject/ to the same diseases, healed by the same means,/ warm and cooled by the same winter and summer/ as a Christian is?” (Shakespeare, Act III, scene I) This part shows the genius of the writer while he sketches the villain with enough sympathy and in different shades. Even if the entire play is spitting hate against the Jew a single act of this dialogue changes the whole perspective of religion and culture in the same context and ultimately becomes humane documentation rather than becoming a religious scroll.

However, religion was going through a hard time due to the effects of occasional plagues on one hand and prosperity on the other. This was a vital problem, and England was undergoing a socio-political change then. There was a basic change in the area of the feudal system and religious piety. With the rise of the middle class, there was the environment of a freethinking society where it was noticed that the wealth was accumulated under certain limited hands of the nobles and the church. With the chance of the church falling apart, Shakespeare presents an environment that represents the principles of Christianity that defies the existing rigidity of the previous church and takes the stand of the common mass (Border, pp. 67-9).

Nevertheless, the result is that the essence of religion remains a statement in form of the religious, almost communal, sentiments of the Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare presented a profile of religion that could be regarded as a tool that may be an instrument of financial opportunistic activity and economic dominance. The different perspective of the writer depicts the era they are creating the work.

This era saw a society where the mass viewed the Jewish with skepticism and alleged them for being sharks for riches. People like Launcelot openly convey this hate against this community and any individual vendetta is regarded as a communal issue. Launcelot speaks this in the open market of Venice, “To be brief, the very truth is that the Jew, having done/ me wrong” (Shakespeare, Act II). Again, the protagonist Antonio, who is otherwise calm and just is seen conveying Shylock by his faith even in a normal conversation. “Content, in faith; I’ll seal to such a bond,/ And say there is much kindness in the Jew.”( Shakespeare, Act I, Scene III) It is clear that this conversation holds no bias in general but the mass psyche against a Jew is present and it becomes a norm in the play to identify Shylock by his religion even when the merit of the words are apprehensive for him. This is a constant reminder of Shylock’s alienated existence in the predominant Christian mass.

Shylock feels this pressure of being pointed out, the uneasiness of being alienated in the society. He speaks out his mind to Antonio when the feeling of victimization became unbearable. “Signior Antonio, many a time and oft/ In the Rialto you have rated me/ About my money and my usances;/ Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,/ For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe;/You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/ And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,/ And all for use of that which is mine own.” (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene III) These words speak for themselves. It reveals the inner soul of a man who has been ramified by social alienation and victimization in the greater context of society. Had it been just an individual issue Shylock could have been overlooked. Nevertheless, he speaks as an individual of a specifically targeted community based on faith. This becomes the real issue of the play and we find shylock being victimized on numerous occasions.

Thus, for there to be a true multiracial and multicultural society, social barriers must not impede any individual at the same time, there should be enough channels for them in society to take responsibility for their lives without sacrificing their heritage or culture. When there is a loss of history and heritage, the tragedy is that people lose the opportunity to build a society that does not only recognize but also celebrates differences. Peoples’ distrust or reservation of other races or cultures is to be expected: it is very natural to fear the unfamiliar. That is why there is a need for conscious and collective actions to change society. This need is constantly revealed in the play as Shylock is seen to be victimized based on his faith from a social and individual point of view. It is a depressing and distressing notion being in Shylock’s position and he has been carrying this within himself even after his loss of his daughter who married a Christian and abandoned him (Berkowitz, p. 276).


Shakespeare paints his villain in such a manner that the pathos is more obvious than the logic and thought process of the protagonists. He is seen as the central figure of religious victimization and prompts him to utter the words that can be treated as the manifesto of every oppressed individual, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? / If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,/ do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (Shakespeare, Act III, scene I) The words of this victimized villain become very relevant, particularly in today’s unipolar yet fragmented world. The leaders of the world need to read this play once more, from the point of view of Shylock, the villain and the victim.


  1. Shakespeare, William; The merchant of Venice Berkowitz, Leo; Man and Literature; Vol. II New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2006
  2. Border, Steve. Fire of the Mind; Wellington: National Book Trust; 2006
  3. Dos, Mark. Future of Thought Process. Canberra: Alliance Publications. 2005
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