Does Shylock deserve his punishment?

8 August 2016

There is no doubt that Shylock is a cunning and vengeful man, but nothing can justify the treatment he receives at the hands of the Christians. ” How far do you agree with this statement? Does Shylock deserve his punishment? Shylock is punished by the Venetian court for seeking to end Antonio’s life. He is charged under a Venetian law (of Shakespeare’s creation) and he is forced to give up his wealth and to beg the Duke to spare him his life. Viewed like this it seems simple enough; Shylock broke a Venetian law and, as a consequence, is punished.

However, Shylock’s case is far from simple. Antonio’s demand that Shylock should renounce his Judaism and become a Christian and his insistence that Shylock should will his money to the Christian Lorenzo who lately stole his daughter1, add up to much more than punishment for wrongdoings. Moreover, the treatment of the Jew by the supposedly merciful Christians, although readily accepted by a less tolerant Elizabethan society, seems, to a 21st century audience with its knowledge of the holocaust, to be cruel to the point of humiliation.

Does Shylock deserve his punishment? Essay Example

The question to be answered is this: is Shylock’s complete humiliation a fair punishment for his crimes? Shylock does himself no favours. On the surface, he appears to be a money orientated, avaricious character who is also driven by a hatred of Christians and particularly of Antonio: I hate him for he is a Christian; But more, for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis2 He seems to be driven by an unhealthy desire for revenge, to feed fat the ancient grudge3 he has for Antonio. The merry sport4 devised by Shylock is nothing more than a devious trap set in order to catch [Antonio] on the hip5.

Furthermore, his reaction to Jessica’s elopement with Lorenzo does not centre on the loss of his daughter, but on the loss of his ducats: I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear: would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin. 6 However, his anger and his hatred do require some context. What Shakespeare never does is present Shylock as a two dimensional pantomime villain. The previous quotations, taken in isolation, transform Shylock into a monster. He is not.

He is, like all of us, a flawed human being, subject to fits of rage, bouts of introspection and moments of compassion. Shylock’s hatred of Antonio, and Christians in general, is a result of the perpetual state of fear that existed between the two races at the time the play was written. The Christian community treated Jews with disdain partly as a consequence of Jewish involvement in Christ’s crucifixion. Laws existed that forbade Jews from owning property or engaging in any profession. They were outcast by Christian society but had nowhere to go; Israel did not exist as a state until after the Second World War.

The only path open to them was usury, or money lending which, of course, was a forbidden practice for Christians and, thus, frowned upon, leading to further animosity. It is noted ruefully by Shylock that when push comes to shove and the Christians need money, they hypocritically come to him despite the fact that they have rated me / About my monies and my usances7. It is during this speech in Act One Scene Three that Shylock lists the wrongs that Antonio has done to him, giving some justification for Shylock’s loathing: You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gabardine. ….. You that did void your rheum upon my beard, And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur Over your threshold8. The language is powerful, persuasive and poetic. In the play, Shylock speaks in a mixture of verse and prose and in this passage, he appears to be reciting a rehearsed speech, reeling off Antonio’s ‘crimes’ which Antonio fully admits he would repeat. It is hard not to feel sorry for Shylock. Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s profligacy does appear cruel. However, his daughter has run off with a Christian, shaming him.

She has also stolen his money and has used Shylock’s betrothal ring in payment for a monkey. His outburst is harsh, but it represents the outburst of a man destroyed by his own flesh and blood’s unfeeling attitude. It is ironic that Jessica’s actions should prove to be the catalyst that hardens Shylock’s attitude towards Antonio; she has turned Christian just as Antonio believed that Shylock’s bond turned him Christian. Despite the characteristics that we cannot admire, in Act Three Shylock is at his most passionate and eloquent in a piece of unrehearsed prose prompted by yet more goading from Salerino and Solanio.

The fundamental questions he poses are rhetorical – they require no answers. He sets out, forcefully and incontrovertibly, facts so basic about human existence that they would make even the most hardened racist think twice. 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? 9 It is a universal message, as relevant today as it was 406 years ago, when the play was first performed.

However, as mentioned before, Shylock is not a two dimensional character, he is no more simply a champion of civil rights than he is simply a barbarous parasite. One of his next lines confirms his nastier side: and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? 10 Shylock’s grief, anger and hatred are more powerful than his compassion and he resolves to have his revenge. A word of warning here, however; Shylock has thoughts of revenge long before his daughter’s elopement, long before he discovers she is spending his money recklessly. Although this information hardens him against Antonio, the seeds of hatred were planted long before.

Shylock’s vengeful character is further revealed in Act Three Scene Three in which he encounters an arrested Antonio. His refusal to be merciful, exploited by Portia in Act Four Scene One, is first seen here: Jailer, look to [Antonio]. Tell not me of mercy. This is the fool that lent out money gratis. 11 Here, Shylock refuses to countenance mercy; he is an orthodox Jew, subject to the teachings of the Old Testament which emphasises the importance of law and justice; he has sworn an oath in heaven12. Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy here which reflects badly on Shylock.

He has only one valid reason for pursuing Antonio through the courts: namely, Antonio’s failure to repay the 3 000 ducats before the bond has expired. A modern audience might argue that there is a moral case to answer, too, given his treatment of Shylock. Nevertheless, the reason Shylock cites in his initial statement at the beginning of this scene for the jailer to keep a close eye on Antonio, is not to do with debt or abuse, rather, it is about Antonio’s business activities, which, as Shylock stated earlier have hindered me half a million13.

Moreover, there is something rather distasteful about Shylock’s treatment of Antonio in this scene; he is like a dog with a bone that he refuses to drop, repeating on four occasions in the space of just sixteen lines, I’ll have my bond. The irony is, of course, that the Christian characters often refer to Shylock in terms of a savage beast like a dog or a wolf, so it should come as no surprise to them that Shylock behaves like one. Shylock arrives at the court believing he has a watertight case against Antonio; this is fortunate as he has absolutely no support from the court whatsoever.

Before his entrance, Shylock is described by the Duke as a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy. Clearly, the Duke, the supposed impartial judge in this case, is anything but impartial. Shylock is isolated by his religion – the Duke refers to him simply as the Jew or Jew on a number of occasions – and by the severity and mercilessness of his plea against Antonio. If he crumbles in court and gives way then he will be completely defeated; the Christians will have crushed the Jew. Shylock has no choice but to seek justice to the letter.

On the surface, Shylock’s quest for justice does seem extreme, but in the face of such abuse of power from his opposition, it is almost justified. Nevertheless, Shylock’s gloating at his seeming victory is distasteful. He loses the audience’s sympathy through his words and the gratuitous sharpening of his knife on the sole of his shoe. He is unmoved by pleading or by insult and when sentence is passed against Antonio, he repeats the words of the bond with almost inhuman relish: ….. Ay, ‘his breast’: So says the bond – doth it not, noble judge? – ‘Nearest his heart’ – those are the very words.

Shylock demands a strict observance of the law, and this is exactly what he gets. He is defeated by his thirst for a warped justice and vengeance over Antonio. He enters the court as an isolated man, but at least with some dignity and sympathy. He leaves the court having lost everything – his daughter, his wealth, his religious freedom and the engagement ring given him by his wife. So, in deciding whether or not Shylock is deserving of his punishments, it is essential to acknowledge that his complexities prevent us from making a black and white answer.

As the play progresses, so our sympathy for Shylock ebbs and flows. Shylock is a human being and he suffers during the course of the play, but he creates suffering. He seems devoid of love, yet he feels the loss of love keenly. He appears cold and calculating, but is subject to bursts of outrage and passion. It is easy to be seduced by Shylock – despite his infrequent appearances in the play he is the most fully developed character; the audience gets to know him well.

Roma Gill claims that when we know a person well, and understand why he acts as he does, we become sympathetic to him…Sympathy can give rise to affection, and affection often tempts us to withhold moral judgement, or at least be gentle in our censure. 14 In other words, our sympathy for the wrongs Shylock has received as a Jewish man cloud the condemnation we should feel for his actions against Antonio. Many of Shylock’s punishments are justified; Shylock sought only justice and so he receives only justice, according to the letter of the law. The punishments laid down in the statute books, however harsh, must be deemed as deserved. Portia: Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods.

In which predicament I say thou [Shylock] stand’st. These are the laws of Venice and the punishments that are laid down if they are broken. The Christians show mercy in sparing Shylock his life and in only fining Shylock rather than taking all of his wealth. The punishments may be harsh but they are legal and binding; Shylock followed the law to the letter and can expect little sympathy from the Christians.

However, this is not all. For some reason, Portia, with no legal authority whatsoever, allows Antonio to make additions to Shylock’s punishment. The Duke concurs. Three leading Christian characters conspire together, unlawfully, to further punish the already defeated Shylock. Christian mercy, it seems, only stretches so far. The extra punishments are harsh, cruel and, in one case, impossible. The object appears to be total humiliation. Antonio asks for half of Shylock’s money in use, to render it / Upon his death unto the gentleman / That lately stole his daughter.

This is bad enough: Shylock’s money, some already stolen by Jessica, is to be given to her Christian husband. Furthermore, Shylock is forced to record a deed of gift, / ….. of all he dies possess’d / Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter – he has to treat a Christian as his son and leave him all his money in his will. The final punishment is the cruellest and most impractical, designed solely for Shylock’s utter humiliation. …. that for this favour He presently become a Christian; A man as intelligent as Antonio must surely know that a man as devout as Shylock will be unable to carry out this punishment in any way but in name.

His desire must be Shylock’s complete defeat. Shylock’s response is that of a totally broken man: I pray you give me leave to go from hence; I am not well. Shylock is never seen again. It would be hard not to feel sympathy for Shylock. Despite his hard heartedness, he never appears less than devoted in his faith. (The fact that he uses his oath in heaven and his religion to justify his murderous pursuit of Antonio, and that he asks What judgement [from God] shall I dread, doing no wrong? , demonstrates a heinous misunderstanding of his faith, and is yet another grey area in our understanding of this complex man.

Whatever. ) His faith is important to him and is personal to him and is immutable. Shylock’s final humiliation at the hands of Antonio and the other Christians, none of whom raise any objections, is unforgivable. It is for this reason that, whilst remembering his harsh cruelty, I am left feeling sympathy for Shylock when he leaves the court during Act Four Scene One. Whether Shakespeare intended his Elizabethan audience to feel sorry for Shylock is a moot point, the fact remains that our last vision of him is of a broken and humiliated man, devoid of family, friends, faith and dignity.

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