Skip to main content

The Character Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice"

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
The villain Shylock, a character who embodies emotion unfettered by moral or intellectual contstraints.

The villain Shylock, a character who embodies emotion unfettered by moral or intellectual contstraints.

An Inhumane and Irrational Shylock

Shylock, in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, embodies emotion unfettered by moral or intellectual constraints. Shylocks' speech at the beginning of act four, scene one, emphasizes this point as the Duke and Antonio call upon both Shylocks' empathetic and rational abilities. His humanity, which would enable Shylock to feel either empathetic or rational and set him apart from animals, is called into question by Antonio, who describes Shylock as "a stony adversary, / an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy" (4.1.2-4).

Calling him "stony," "inhuman," and "empty" all equate Shylock with inanimate things such as stones and empty space and suggest not only that Shylock is an inanimate object but is also something definitely not human, something monstrous or animalistic.

The Duke then, by trying to persuade Shylock through flattery to change his demands, uses words of praise that work as a stark contrast to Shylocks' true nature. The Duke tells Shylock the court believes that "thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture, / But, touched with human gentleness and love, / Forgive a moiety of the principal" (4.1.23-25). His belief lacks substance, as Shylock has in no way suggested releasing Antonio from his bond or has displayed any predisposition to human gentleness or love.

Therefore, this speech works as a foil, but it can also be assumed that the Duke either purposes to persuade Shylock himself that such sentiments do in fact exist in him buried beneath the surface and that he should step up to everyone's expectations and be embraced for the act, thereby no longer existing as the outcast Jew, or simply that he should change his mind as it is the right thing to do. It is expected from a humane and reasonable standpoint by all, signified by the Duke's speech ending with the phrase: "We all expect a gentle answer, Jew" (4.1.33).

Shylock's answer to the request that he pardon Antonio explicitly parallels the aspects of his character stated by Antonio and contrasts with those offered by the Duke. Shylock states: "I have possessed your grace of what I purpose, / And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn / To have the due and forfeit of my bond" (4.1.34-36). The diction here employs irony, as by asking to be given his "due", Shylock is figuratively asking the Duke "to treat him or speak of him with justice, to do justice to any merits he many possess," according to the OED. This throws into light the concept that Shylock in fact has no apparent merits, and therefore the idea of him asking for his due and justice to be dealt with is rendered absurd.

Furthermore, the play on the word "due" can also potentially be linked to the saying "to give the devil his due: to do justice even to a person of admittedly bad character or repute (or one disliked by the speaker)" as stated in the OED. Shakespeare is referenced to having used both figurative definitions of the word "due" in works created the same year as The Merchant of Venice, so it can be assumed that the references are valid in both instances.

The second reference equates Shylock with the devil or a creature who cons humans into signing away their lives in contract and exists only to practice evil upon them. This interpretation is furthered by the word "forfeit" used shortly after that in the same sentence, which is defined as "a penalty for breach of contract or neglect of duty" (OED), suggesting Shylock holds unwavering control over Antonio through a bond that bought his life and soul. This has religious connotations reinforced by Shylock's previous mention of "our holy Sabbath," on which he has sworn, making a holy concept unholy by swearing another man's death upon it.

Shylock continues his response, stating, "You'll ask me why I rather choose to have/A weight of carrion flesh than to receive / Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that, / But say it is my humour" (4.1.39-42). Again, this shows Shylock's inhumane characteristics, as he would pass up a large sum of money that most would value in order to satisfy his blood-lust and morbid revenge.

This appears irrational, as the offered settlement is triple the amount owed, and he still rejects it for something that will be of no value, a pound of flesh. Shylock contests it is his "humour" which drives him to his demands, his "mental disposition, constitutional or habitual tendency; temperament" (OED), all things detached from rationale. Unlike humans who weigh their options and decide upon them based on rational reasons, Shylock makes his decisions based on temperament, feelings of hatred and a desire to destroy the object of that hatred. He does not reason but simply feels and acts accordingly based on his emotions.

By comparing Antonio to a rat, Shylock equates the worth of Antonio's life to be that of a rat's, dehumanizing himself as he sees no value in another human being's welfare.

By comparing Antonio to a rat, Shylock equates the worth of Antonio's life to be that of a rat's, dehumanizing himself as he sees no value in another human being's welfare.

Shylock furthers this point by giving an example: "what if my house be troubled with a rat,/And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats to have it baned?" (4.1.43-45). By comparing Antonio to a rat, Shylock equates the worth of Antonio's life to be that of a rat's, again dehumanizing himself as he sees no value in another human being's welfare. Shylocks' described reaction to the poisoning of the rat, to "be pleased", again refers only to his emotions. The death of the rat merely pleases Shylock by no longer troubling his household, and he therefore infers that the death of Antonio will have a similarly pleasing affect on his mood, which it is his goal to achieve. He goes on to reference other animals, "Some men there are that love not a gaping pig,/Some that are mad if they behold a cat,/And others when the bagpipe sings I'th' nose/Cannot contain their urine" (4.1.46-49), in comparison to his need to gain his bond, referencing feelings of dislike and madness as needs similar to his need to kill Antonio. These needs are again inspired by pure emotion, and therefore imply the Shylock is comprised of only feelings and incapable of reasoning. The ability to think critically and to treat others humanely are lacking in Shylock.

Similarly Shylock continues: "for affection,/Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood/Of what it likes or loathes" (4.1.49-51). Shylock implies that the reason for these hatreds and the need to destroy lies in affection, or "an emotion or feeling" (OED), again inadequate explanation to justify his goals. His feelings of dislike regarding Antonio do not logically validate his desire to murder him. As humans we have learned to separate our desires and impulses from our actions through reason. However, Shylock claims he is under the influence of the mistress of passion, the mistress of "any strong, controlling, or overpowering emotion, as desire, hate, fear, etc; an intense feeling or impulse" (OED), representing the emotional side of thought but totally isolated from the rational side. The word "impulse" implies a direct rejection of thought, merely acting upon whim or fancy with no attention to what is being done or the subsequent consequences. So detached from reason, Shylock cannot be logical, and as an animal he merely reacts impulsively to his feelings, and he himself admits to his actions being swayed by his presiding impulse or emotion of the moment.

Furthermore, Shylock admits that "there is no firm reason to be rendered" (4.1.52) why those who hate pigs or cats, which he equates with his desire to kill Antonio, experience those desires. The act of needing to kill a rat, hating a roasted pig or cat or bagpipe, all seem inconsequential and when compared to Shylock's feelings render them inadequate to justify murder. In fact, Shylock himself realizes the absurdity of his desires and his attempts to explain them, and so states that in his examples "but of force/Must yield to such inevitable shame/As to offend himself being offended,/So can I give no reason, nor I will not" (4.1.35-38). Shylock states that he must feel shame and be offended himself for being so offended, like the subjects of his examples, suggesting his offense is somewhat ridiculous and therefore worthy of shame. This is a type of epiphany because Shylock has at least acknowledged that his reasoning lacks support and justification; however, he does not relent and refuses to elaborate upon the matter. His final statements again show his initial resolve, despite his lack of explanation, and he says he will have his bond spurred by "a lodged hate and a certain loathing/I bear Antonio, that I follow thus/A losing suit against him" (4.1.59-61). These lines again show a hint of inhumanness as Shylock yet again refuses money in exchange for great monetary loss and actions which will only satisfy his irrational hatred. This distances him from the rest of society and perpetuates his ostracism as his actions validate Antonio's attacks upon his character and depict him as a creature without morals but only emotion, and as an entity of pure evil when, despite the fact he realizes his own flaws in logic and all appeal to his compassion and mercy, he still pursues his morbid goals.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Prisca on June 25, 2017:

Helpful and informative for me

Aysha on May 27, 2017:

Thanks its REALLY a good analysis on Shylock

Glen Rix from UK on October 11, 2016:

This play provides an insight into Elizabethan attitudes to Jews and usury. I feel rather sorry for Shylock, who was embittered by the prejudice that he endured.

Robert Levine on June 20, 2016:

So how does one reconcile Shylock being under the sway of "affection" with Antonio's description of him as "stony" and therefore dispassionate?

Connor Mellor on January 26, 2014:

Concise and well written

Eshabuko Shielar on October 04, 2011:

Like hell a carried out a gud analysis on Shylock