Shylock, Shakespeare’s infamous bitter, villainous victim from the Merchant of Venice is often portrayed solely as a villain. Shylock is not an understanding character, but the bitterness he oozes has festered as a result of continuous persecutions Jewish men suffered working in a Christian world. His anger at the world manifests as his inability to feel empathy or understanding for others. His short temper, fueled by bitterness, is seen in his mantra of deserving his “pound of flesh”. Shylock shows his ruthlessness in his pursuit for Antonio, trying to extract a pound of flesh for an unpaid loan.
On the surface, Shylock’s actions against Antonio seem unnecessarily cruel. Looking closer, we can see how his behaviour seems justified after the way Antonio had treated me all those years. Shylock laments his anti-Semitic treatment at the hands of the Venetians. He is repeatedly humiliated by the Christians for his religious beliefs i.e. they spit on him in the streets, call him a dog, even in a serious moment like the trial scene he is disgraced. Throughout the play he is not referred to by name, but rather as “Jew”. “Here comes another of the tribe-third cannot be matched, unless the devil himself turned Jew” (Act III, Scene I, line 64-65). Shylock loses his money and daughter to Lorenzo and is forced to convert to Christianity, removing his identity after degrading him. We are made aware of this through the actions of others but also at a pivotal soliloquy in which Shylock gets to let the audience hear his side of the story. In Act 3, Scene 1 we get a glimpse of how far Shylock has been pushed as a victim, and that he has turned to a cruel, hateful being consumed with revenge:
“Hath not a Jew 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, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
By pointing out his initial patience with Antonio, we get to see how though maybe not classified as a victim, Shylock has definitely some cause for the way he has turned out.
After discussing the constant abuse, Shylock stated “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe” (Shakespeare I.iii.109-110). Shylock vocalises his feelings of being a martyr, accepting that Christians will continue to victimize him due to his Jewish background. In his monologue, Shylock expounds on the traits of how people see Jewish individuals, highlighting characteristics that he believes have made him be treated as less than human i.e. asks if he does not also have eyes, hands, organs and feelings. It is apparent that he is not treated humanely; in this, he is a victim.
While his treatment lets us understand how he has become so hardened, his behaviour has surpassed from reaction to cruel intent. In Act 3, Scene 1, line 52, we can see how his intentions have changed when he says, “To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” There is no business purpose to his cruelty; he is now acting selfishly, reacting to his own emotions – something characteristic of a villain.
Shylock’s constant victimization shows us how human he really is; the constant abuse pushes him to his edge where he turns and begins to act in kind, becoming villainous.