To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? 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? 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 villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction
Merchant of Venice : Acts 3 Scene1
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock holds little to be desired. From all indications, it can be argued that Shylock (though full of flaws) is as well a victim of prejudice.
A lot is not right about the manner in which the playwright assigned roles and characteristics to the main characters, his approach to justice and his perception of right and wrong.
Renaissance Venice is the setting of the play. Two opposing forces, represented by two major characters – Antonio and Shylock are ‘at war’ in this classic piece and the events and actions of the play revolves around them.
The man Antonio is an influential/powerful merchant of Venice. A Christian by description and a purported nobleman. He represents the high and mighty, the privileged and the sect of the untouchables. Shylock on the other hand is shy of luck. Although commonly regarded as the villain of the play, he is a rich Jew who practices usury.
Between both characters, there is no love lost. Shylock loathes Antonio because he has consistently despised him and his people (the Jews). He finds Antonio’s inability to repay his debt as a way to take his revenge on him. His insatiable vengeful quest becomes his tragic flaw as he looses all at the end – even his right to religion. Meanwhile, Antonio, although not devoid of faults, is freed without punishment or reproof.
In my opinion, I feel Shylock wasn’t served a fair dose of justice. Although a man with a lot of inadequacies, he is as well a victim of prejudice so long as the eyes of the law seemed shut against the undoings of Antonio and his lot. The unforgiving attitude of Shylock didn’t make the inhumane disposition of seemingly good fellows like Antonio permissible. It appears the narrative seemed to overlook the wrongs of the ‘better other’ while not even a common sense of apology or remorse was shown for the plights of Shylock and his folks.
I find it distasteful that the full force of the law was brought to bear to the aid of one man(Antonio) in his ‘pitiable’ moment while no one seemed to care about the age-long ill treatment meted on Shylock and his people.
A fact to acknowledge is the notion that archetypes proceeds from the initial assumption that every work of literature can be fitted into a larger framework that encompasses all aspects of our social reality. The story line in Shakespeare’s Shylock depicts archetypes, i.e recurrent narrative designs, patterns of actions, character-types, themes, and images that transcends the work and represents common patterns of human life.
Shylock and Antonio are archetypes. Both are microcosms that represent broad aspects of the human reality. In each character, you’ll find the traits of the oppressed and the oppressor, the victim and the victor, the scapegoat and the sacred lamb. A more powerful nation (in her pretence as a becon of light) decides to ravage ill equipped ones due to perceived danger threat posed by the latter. The influential individual (himself with a deceptive personality) is empowered to hurt a fellow human because of wrong doings he is not free of. The bulk of the formers have the resources, connection, and will power hence control the narrative.
We see a Shylock who is bitter, unforgiving, vengeful and all. However, we don’t seem to realize that his attitudes are the fruit of what the hypocritical system of judgment/authority of his time has dished him. One would have thought the narrative would also bring the arrogant, unkind, dehumanizing, self-righteous attitude of people like Antonio to the fore, but it failed to do so.
It’s not going to be out of place to think that Shylock would have been a better person if his plight hadn’t been consistently overlooked. If you desire the best in/of someone, shouldn’t you try to extend a hand of goodwill to them?
Now to lady Portia. I would she demonstrated her famed/supposed sense of wisdom and justice through and through. She was so witty and being grave in the defense of a man she hardly knew. Come to think of it, she only agreed to defend Antonio at the behest of her lover Bassanio (one can’t even be sure if both guys weren’t secret lovers, but that’s by the way). Our ladyship in all her wisdom couldn’t pause for a moment to look into Shylock’s grievances. Such a Daniel!
At the end of the play, the influential citizens (sacred cows) of Venice had cause to celebrate while the likes of Shylock continue to nurse the feeling of pain and shame. What more can be oppressive than forcing a man to forsake his faith and beliefs and unwillingly embrace another? Truth is, the empowered of the ‘two evils’ won the ‘victory’. One is left to determine if the idea of fairness and true justice and is reflective in the play at all.
To think that my overall sense of empathy lies with Shylock is to think amiss. Dangerous reactionary demonstrations should never be tolerated no matter the reasons for them. This is just an attempt to point out loopholes in the narrative and indeed human relationships as a macrocosm. If sheer sentiments and ego protection is the basis on which we judge and relate with others, there is surely not going to be a breathing ground for fairness and healthy co-existence.
There was a lot Shylock did wrong. There was however a lot more the superstructure which Antonio represented could have done better. In Achebe’s words, if I cut grass and you cut, what’s your right to call me names. If the system of justice will mete out punishment to a ‘faulty’ man (Shylock), shouldn’t it strike a common ground? After all, he that must come to equity must come with clean hands.
It’s sheer hypocrisy to attend the speck in another’s eye while a whole log takes residence in one’s own eye.
Antonio has never been my hero in the play and neither was Shylock a ready-made evil.
The world will be a safe and peaceful place for us all to live if we will do unto others as we will like them do to us.There should be no justification for wrong doings neither should acts as lack of kindness and near inhumane treatment go unnoticed.
Shakespeare’s got some explaining to do.
Image credit : The Boomerang