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Merchant of Venice: How might Shakespeare

produce a strongly ambivalent response in the


audience with his portrayal of Shylock in Act 3
Scene 1?
There were virtually no Jews in Elizabethan England and
we will never know if Shakespeare had any direct
interaction with a Jewish person but it is more likely that
his knowledge and interpretation was based on legend,
folklore and little fact passed through the ages.
Shakespeare will have been influenced by history as well
as his peers and the writers and playwrights who preceded
him and in the beginning Shylock is portrayed in the
predictable manner to appeal to the audiences of the
time; as the entertaining baddie they loved to hate.
In the opening scene of Act 3, as they do throughout the
play Solanio and Salerio orientate the audience (time
seems to go quicker in Venice then Belmont) and provide
the background of the scene. The scene opens with them
talking warmly about Antonio that the good Antonio, the
honest Antonio This reflects badly on Shylock as he and
Antonio have been pitched against each other and will
have made the audience think sympathetically about
Antonio and badly of Shylock. Before he even appears on
the stage Solanio and Salerio reinforce Shylock to the
audience as a bad character lest the devil cross my
prayer for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew. You can
imagine this being very powerful for the audience from a
stage direction perspective. The Salads go on to torment
Shylock and the playgoers, who saw Jews as caricatures,
would have revelled in it. They mock him by asking him
what is going on in a condescending manner How now
Shylock, what news among the Merchants? Shylock
knows that they are aware that Jessica has eloped and
taken his jewels with her and cannot hide his anger which
would further reinforce the audiences view.

As the scene continues so do their insults, when Shylock


despairs about Jessicas betrayal Solanio responds with a
quip about Shylocks being too old for sexual desires. He
also compares Shylock and Jessica, suggesting Shylock is
course and cheap but Jessica is fine and palatable
between your bloods than there is between red wine and
Rhenish. Opinions in the audiences were probably split by
Shylocks response to the Salads enquiry if Antonio had
suffered any loss at sea. The use of the words beggar
and smug to describe Antonio will not have been well
received by some members of the audience but the
repetition of the phrase Let him look to his bond may
have raised a little sympathy with some that Shylock and
Antonio had an agreement, which Antonio broke.
The audience will have been shocked by Shylocks
assertion of how worthless Antonios flesh is, that he
would use it to bait fish, its only real value is to feed his
revenge which as we discover at the end of the play has
more value to Shylock than money. It is at this point
Shylock starts to open up to the audience and become
more human and less of a caricature. His whats his
reason speech about Antonios poor treatment of him will
likely have caused the audience to think. Initially Shylock
gives legitimate business and financial reasons for his
desire to have revenge on Antonio He hath disgraced me
and hindered me half a million. But it is only later in the
speech that he will have really pricked the conscience of
the audience, his rhetorical questions appealing to the
audience to consider what Jews and Christians share
rather than what makes them different... Hath not a Jew
eyes warmed and cooled by the same winter and
summer as a Christian is? followed by arguably the most
famous line of the play if you prick us, do we not bleed.
In the Almeida production Shylock rips off his shirt, an
effective stage action to suggest that he is tortured and is
baring his soul to the audience. The villainy you teach
me this phrase comes at odds with how the Christian
characters and a Shakespearean audience view
themselves, as valuing love, friendship and being above

spite and greed. This reminds the audience that Shylock is


not alone in these negative qualities.
The Christian characters serve as the archetype of
everything Shylock hates about Christianity: gluttonous,
greedy, crude-humoured and bigoted. In this scene
Shylock makes his murderous intentions clear, despite the
malevolent intent he imparts empathy from the audience
with the reasons he gives. With his self-assertion of his
humanity he dehumanises the Christian characteristic of
self-interest.
Shakespeare reminds the audience that the Christians are
flawed too the villainy you teach me This is of course at
odds with how the Christians perceive themselves as
valuing love friendship and good qualities above greed
and spite.
When the Christians leave his demeanour continues to
deteriorate and his distress becomes more and more
apparent no tears but of my shredding. He then makes
out Jessica as the villain, after she swapped a ring she had
stolen from him for a monkey, this ring was special to
Shylock as it was a gift from Leah, his dead wife whom he
evidently loved dearly as he would not have given it for a
wilderness of monkeys. Shakespeare deliberately puts
emphasis on the fact that this bartering was for a monkey
as it portrays Jessica as a heartless party girl who would
give away her dead mothers ring for a mere
entertainment piece.
This scene gives many examples of Shylocks reasonable
logic for his rage. From the start of the scene Solanio and
Salerio (the Salads) bombard Shylock with the abuse that
Shylock had become used to as he said in Act 1 scene
Still I have borne it with a patient shrug. Solanio is
casual in his saying of the devil here he comes in the
likeness of a Jew before addressing Shylock in what could
be portrayed as a condescending manner. Unlike before
however Shylock does not show any sense of patience in
response making it clear that he knew of the conspiracy
against him and that they knew all too well of his

situation. The Salads confirm this and mock the loss of


Shylocks daughter with a clever play on words indicating
that instead of leaving the dam [her home] she was
leaving the damned [her faith.]
On the other hand some could interpret what Shylocks
saying in a more malicious tone. The fact that he appears
more concerned about his financial loss thou stickst in
me- I shall never see my gold again than the loss of his
daughter. His resentment towards his daughter is made
clear by his wishing that ... my daughter were dead at my
foot and the jewels in her ear the fact that she would at
his feet implies he would be willing to kill her himself.
Another key example comes later on in the scene where
Shylock expresses his glee at Antonios misfortune (upon
hearing of Antonios wrecked vessel) I thank thee, good
tubal good news, good news Ha-ha! He also makes clear
that he intends to use his bond to its full value, I will have
the heart of him. As opposed to being an over
exaggeration this line is meant to be interpreted at face
value, thus portraying Shylock as a blood hungry
bogeyman. This also has some historical relevance, as it
was common folklore that Jews sacrificed Christian
children, which had led to the expulsion of the Jews from
England in 1275.
During the scene Shylock says I thank God I thank God
this serves to remind the audience that Christians and
Jews worship the same god and this contrasts starkly with
the end of the scene when Shylock reinforces the
difference between Christians and Jews through his
repeated use of the phrase our synagogueour
synagogue.
Shakespeare, with the character of Shylock attracts both
sympathy and antipathy from the audience, rapidly
changing between the two. For a contemporary
Shakespeare audience it would have been harder feel such
sympathy, but through Shylocks use of language the
audience gain a greater understanding of a Jews troubles

and feelings in that time.


Shakespeare, perhaps
influenced by his own experiences of the religious
prejudice and disharmony prevalent in Tudor times - when
Catholics inside and outside England raged against the
persecution by Protestants of Catholics - developed a far
more complex human Jewish character than would be
expected. Although it could be argued that the Merchant
of Venice is anti-Semitic, a parody of a Jewish
moneylender, a stereotype, Shylock is at least not simply
a villain but a complex character, flawed but human and
persecuted by the Christians around him.
Cameron Edge