An Examination of Shylock’s Rhetoric

  • Post author:
  • Post last modified:October 30, 2019

Examine Shylock’s rhetoric. Pay special attention to the quality of his language—his use of metaphor and repetition, for instance. How do his speeches reflect his character as a whole?

Shylock’s wit and rhetoric are exceptionally good and sharp edged. He is clever at the art of debate and makes piercing points.  On the one hand, he is quite blunt and on the other he can be surprisingly witty.  However, that does not mean he talks nonsense or teases others only for the sake of pleasure. All throughout the drama, he offers a very good glimpse of how he can use the power of rhetoric to trouble his adversaries. He makes an impression with his rhetoric right with his entry. He mixes sarcasm, rebuke and counsel in his words to make stunning arguments. His rhetoric is also the reason behind his towering presence over the other characters in the drama.  

He considers Antonio a kid who does not know his business and wastes money lending it free of interest. Antonio has been verbal about Shylock’s greed and ugly business strategies in the past. His arguments have hurt shylock deeply.  On the other hand, the moneylender Jew makes strong arguments and his speech is manipulative but  full of flavour. Adept at backing his arguments with inarguable logic, he does not hesitate to use religious scriptures to support his point. 

Despite being comical, he does not sound illogical. There is always strong and difficult to beat logic in his points. He does not make straightforward points either since he knows Christians will not accept simple and weak arguments. His arguments are crafted to boggle his adversaries minds and pierce their hearts. He sounds complicated but his words are fully meditated and his tone razor sharp. Arguing with him is like walking a thin line and the chances of tripping and falling are always high. Anyone who thinks he can attack Shylock’s rhetoric has to face defeat early as happens with Antonio.

Shakespeare has not created villains that lack mind and thought. He has created villains which are like a puzzle and intimidating because of their clever minds. Unless you know where you have to target, they will slay your logic and shake your confidence.  Antonio becomes an easy target because he has underestimated the Jew and kept feeding his fury. Till the final judgement, the Jew has given him his fair share of trouble and pain. 

“Directly interest. Mark what Jacob did:

When Laban and himself were compromised
That all the eanlings which were streaked and pied
Should fall as Jacob’s hire, the ewes, being rank,
In the end of autumn turnèd to the rams.”
 
 The cunning Jew cites religious scriptures to prove his point about charging interest and sound ethical. To support his arguments with strong logic and reason, he quotes from holy books.  While doing so, he is calm and contained as if trying to tease Antonio’s patience. Antonio soon grows frustrated calling him the devil which shows Shylock is skilled at making impregnable arguments that can easily leave his adversaries unstable. His arguments are not impractical and he always strikes deep. As Antonio says, he “Is like a villain with a smiling cheek”. He has a smiling cheek and a lashing tongue. The situation grows even funny when he prays to God about Antonio and Bassanio’s puny minds. They cannot judge he is just being friendly and doing them a favour by lending them money and suspect his intention. Thus, you will find there is a balanced mix of ethos and logos in his rhetoric.
 
He uses his communication skills to engage his target. Instead of denying the two friends the loan, he cleverly sets his trap without letting them have the slightest knowledge of his vengefulness. Even if Bassanio is aware to some extent, Antonio is feeling challenged by the Jew’s remarks. Shylock has not proposed a loan but put a question mark on his Christian honour. Shylock is exceptional at communication and uses his art with skill to keep his adversaries badly frustrated till close to the end. He speaks like a learnt man with honourable intentions. It is as if he considers himself a wise and learnt man and above the ordinary Christians who in his view lack self discipline. 
A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say,
To buy his favor I extend this friendship.
If he will take it, so. If not, adieu.
And for my love I pray you wrong me not.
 
Again he is teasing the two to prove that they together do not hold as much acumen as him while also hinting subtly at their short sightedness. The situation becomes funny because Shylock is trying to tell the two they are worth nothing; just goats and lambs waiting to be slaughtered. He repeats his point about his hatred for Christians throughout the play. Shylock does not miss to repeat either that he is a devout Jew and nothing else.  Even in a spirit of jest, he does not fail to make a point against the Christians’ vanity. His metaphors are just as good and selected with care to make a strong impression. He calls Portia a ‘Daniel’ in the court. Shylock is twisted inside and his hatred for the Christians frequently pours out in his speech but he still speaks with seriousness.  He is worried for his money and the three thousand ducats that he mentions quite often but revenge matters more to him.
A few things that  get clear from an analysis of his rhetoric are that he is shrewd, a devout Jew and that he hates Christians. He also uses language to prove himself wise, respectable and a person who believes in practical things unlike the young Christians he is debating against. His rhetoric helps him gain sympathy from the readers. Pained by the condition of Jews in the Venetian society, he cannot help speaking about their helplessness.   
“I am a Jew. 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?” (Act 3 scene 1)
His arguments are clever, strong and difficult to dispute. However, the above lines also highlight how well Shylock utilises the power of pathos (emotional appeal) in his rhetoric to make great points. The Christians in Venice may have looked down upon him, spat on him and challenged his self respect. He is tormented but not defeated. So, he is also trying to stir the souls of the Christians in the court. Shylock wants that the Christians let the poor Jews whom he represents live with more self respect.  His tone and style vary as per the need of the moment. Often his speech grows very colourful and his tone pampering.
His rhetoric is powerful and he remains in control of the situation till the arrival of Portia. To escape him and his language is difficult, if not impossible. Except for Portia, no one has the wit to overcome Shylock’s rhetoric. Till the end, he casts a taller shadow than the other characters in the drama and so does his rhetoric which is dwarfed only by Portia’s clever thinking. However, his rhetoric cannot stand the integrity test because of his evil intentions. So, all does not end well for Shylock, but while he stands, he is unbeatable because of his sense of humour and excellent rhetoric. That’s what you call a double impact.  

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.