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Does Shylock fulfill or exceed his role?

Discuss Shylock’s dramatic function in The Merchant of Venice. What do critics mean when they suggest that Shylock is “too large” for the play? Does he fulfill or exceed his role?

Centuries have passed since Shakespeare wrote ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and yet critics’ fascination with Shylock does not reduce. To them, he is larger than every other character in the play. There is a sound reason that critics find him overgrowing the drama and the other characters in it. His character is deeply engaging and equally interesting and amusing are his scenes and dialogues. Despite being the villain, he successfully gains sympathy from the audience. His character often grows larger than the plot. The amount of tragedy in the Merchant of Venice is there because of Shylock. He adds flavor to the drama through his clever quotes and comic yet piercing dialogues. Rather than money, he is interested in revenge and having a pound of flesh from Antonio’s heart.  For him, it is difficult to be otherwise and his attitude is born of the  Venetians’  treatment of the Jews.  He cannot hide the pain he feels when he sees the Jewish community being made inferior to the Christians. You cannot find a natural backstabber like Iago in him.

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”. (Act iii, scene i)

According to him, he is fighting a just war. He claims to be honest and had not Antonio been so rude to him in past, Shylock’s attitude towards him might have been different. It is quite natural of someone who had born as much at the hands of the Christians to be bent at seeking revenge. He argues that Jews are humans and must be treated with humanity and kindness. This is enough to illicit sympathy from the audience. He amuses and interests and sometimes even makes us forget his villainy by his logic and his comic attitude. He plays an active role on the stage and more active than any of the other characters including the protagonist. He is a complex character and his logic for his being so is that he has been marginalized, oppressed and ostracized. It is therefore his right to demand equal status for the Jews and have a pound of flesh from Antonio’s heart. Shakespeare has portrayed his villainy, greed and selfishness with great clarity.

The size of his character is larger than the others and he is the central pillar who holds the weight of the plot.  Another main reason that he appears as having exceeded his role to the critics is that even Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and Portia and Bassanio’s love are unable to shadow his role and its importance. Despite being the villain, he remains at the center of the most of the play’s action and sometimes even dominates the scenes from which he is absent. No other character is able to reduce his importance in the drama. Moreover, his attitude is sometimes so comical and amusing that it makes him unforgettable.  The best thing that Shakespeare has done through his character is to use him for both tragedy and comedy. He also holds some real traits of a villain and his malice and greed are deep and real. He is a tough and well rounded character who is not ready to lose or let it go till the end. All these factors have made him a favorite of critics. He is fascinating and stimulating for other reasons too. He defies being classified specifically as a villain. He is anxious over the poor treatment of Jews in Venice. Moreover, he is the way he is because he has been forced to be that way. His attitude leaves readers puzzled at times and it is for the unpredictability associated with his character that he is outstanding. With utmost innocence he declares that  taking interest on his  loans is not wrong.  With equal frankness he declares his deep-held hatred for the Christians. When it comes to religion, he announces with pride that his is superior and that  equally superior are his methods of business.

“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”. (Act 1, Scene 3)

He does not veil his emotions like Iago but instead says things smack in the face. It is why he sometimes appears too honest to be a villain.  He can be equally comical while also being sarcastic. When Bassanio and  Antonio approach him for money, he sarcastically reminds Antonio of his previous treatment of the poor Jew. It appears he takes him to be too childish and simple to be a trader.  He makes him feel like a kid who does not have a business man’s wisdom.  His style and oratory all make the other characters appear dwarfed before him.

“Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me ’dog’—and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much moneys?” (Act 1, Scene 3)
For him interest is profit and Antonio is devoid of business acumen. Thus, there are so many facets of Shylock’s character that some are not even fully understandable. It is why he is just as puzzling as he is stimulating. It is also why Shylock appears too grand to fit in a single drama. He is more like an entire drama in himself rather than just a  character. However, another thing about the Jew is that  Shakespeare has created him in a way that he still remains a villain in the eyes of the audience and gets only his fair share of love and sympathy. Shylock has his weaknesses too. Had not the Jew been as passionate about his revenge he would not have lost all that he did at the end. As a villain, he gets to have his fair share of wins until Portia has cleverly used his wit against him.  He remains bent on having a pound of flesh until he is warned that a single ounce of blood he sheds will be unjustified and will be used against him in the court of law.  Even when surrounded by Christians on all sides, he is unwilling to let his one chance of revenge go. Throughout the drama, his character is full of depth and intensity. He does not disappoint as a villain at any point. His wit and rhetoric are exceptional which have made him the critics’ favorite. He makes a lasting impression with his artistic language and flawless arguments. Noone can help feeling impressed by the way he teases the minds of the other characters in the drama. The way he handles them with patience and wit shows he is someone who exercises control through his wit and craft. Even if Antonio and team have won against him at the end, it has not been an easy win for them. It is also the power of his exceptional rhetoric that the critics have found him so engaging. 

Written by 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.

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