Shakespeare’s comedies usually come with a signature trademark; a happy ending full of joyous marriages and a tone best contrasted with that of a tragedy, more comical and lighthearted. Unfortunately, despite having been categorized as a comedy, The Merchant of Venice fails to reach a conclusive, happy ending as Shylock’s character is torn between two extremes. Although Shakespeare’s original intention was to just write a piece about a savage Jew, two prominent interpretations of Skylock’s flawed character have surfaced.
One interpretation finds Skylock being marked as the scapegoat, ultimately destroyed so others can achieve success, and the other a sympathetic Jew, one who evokes feelings of sympathy from the audience. Despite Skylock not being the whole play by any means; he paints the most memorable illustration of the play’s entirety. Not being able to comprehend Skylock’s flawed character would almost certainly result in the loss of meaning. Despite never being able to achieve enlightenment as his peers do, Shylock allows the reader to acknowledge both sides of interpretations but focus on the true residual problem: rage and the preoccupation with self.
One noteworthy attribute of Shylock that can bring his character together for us, regardless of which extreme we happen to interpret it, is his capacity for rage. Comparing Skylock’s undying antipathy to a generous Antonio, evidence of Shylock’s savage character appears when his daughter steals all his ducats and jewels and runs off with Lorenzo. Shylock becomes hysterical and exclaims, “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.” (3.1.87-90)
Presumably, Shylock does feel affection for his only daughter Jessica; yet he claims her as if she were of the same value of his ducats and jewelry, and when she runs off with Lorenzo he hysterically names all three in a single outcry, “[My] stones, [my] daughter, [my] ducats.” (2.8.25) Rage in this instance would always be a symptom rather than a thing in itself; and the response of the reader to a presentation of rage must depend upon the circumstances they can mentally bring forward to account for it.
Shylock in this regard was someone pathological or inhumanly monstrous to those who have certain redeeming goodness, such as Antonio in the beginning scene, altruistically lending ducats to Bassanio. Shylock’s stinginess for his wealth plays an unfavorable role in determining his character as the Christians in the play seemed to be seeking camaraderie as opposed to fortune. However, the inverse reading of the scene may lead one to primarily see a pathetic Jew who braved his dignity had tried to come to terms with his Christian neighbors and found himself mocked and robbed of all his wealth and his only daughter.
Clearly the play here was meant to have ambiguity and suggests to the audience that both possibilities are probable. As for the rage itself, the play also equivocates on that, letting us first see the distraught Jew from the eyes of that heartless pair Salarino and Salanio, and then bringing us to his presence to hear directly his eloquent claim to human consideration and his lament over the loss of a turquoise that his dead wife Leaf gave him before she became a bride.
For all of Shylock’s rageful moments, the critical as well as the sympathetic, derived from a simple characteristic: his preoccupation with self. Never in the play do we catch more than the most dubious glimmer of altruism in Shylock. He would love to “catch [Antonio] once on the hip” (1.3.46) and feed the ancient grudge that he bears. (1.3.47) Thus when he breaks custom and offers to lend his money gratis, he does so with the ancient grudge in mind while proposing a “merry bond.” (1.3.185) At home he starves his household and views the departure of the servant Launcelot that his going will be an economy.
Shylock’s high-praised declaration to Salarino and Salanio –“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?” (3.1.58) originally creates sympathy with Shylock, often allowing direct parallels to be drawn between Shylock and other victims of religious persecution. As much as we think Shylock deserves his downfall, we tend to feel sympathetic and uneasy as if we ourselves were somehow to blame for his humiliation. However, his rant turns at the end to a threat of revenge. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge… The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (3.1.67-72) cites persecution and oppression to justify his actions.
Many Christians are bullies and apt for revenge; and Christians have tormented Jews for centuries. However, the Duke of Venice seems not to be so minded, and fair Antonio clearly is not; nor is revenge characteristic of their Christian faith, for Christianity like Judaism teaches forgiveness. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity was to be a form of enlightenment for the character, as during the Victorian Era, becoming a Christian would allow him to save his soul and allow him to enter Heaven.
In any case, preoccupation with self is the ground upon which the two extreme interpretations of Shylock of Shakespeare’s sources come together. The result is a character that by turns frightening, pitiable, and laughable but consistently self-centered from beginning to end. By using rage as the mechanism to define self-centeredness, an analysis of Shylock’s conflicted character can be created from the text.