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Merchant of Venice - Modern Humanitarianism

Uploaded by shahinsting on May 11, 2001

“Modern Humanitarianism has run riot on Shylock.” Discuss.


“The Merchant of Venice” is concerned with two issues that were of importance in the Elizabethan Age: Jewry and Usury. It is generally assumed that the Elizabethan attitude to Jewry was hostile and that the execution of Roderigo Lopez in 1594 was characteristic of the Christian rejection of all ‘Jews, Turks, Infidels and Heretics’, who were considered to be “misbelievers”. But this could also be a false assumption, for although the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to live in England, once they did they were generally left alone. Marlowe in “The Jew of Malta” portrays a Machiavellian Jew, but one who is ‘rarely mean’ in his villainy. Usury was a contemporary and important issue during Shakespeare’s time. Shylock is the negative and stereotype picture of the usurer that most of the Elizabethans had- one who was seen as a ‘greedy dog’, ‘a leech’.

The interpretation of Shylock’s character is difficult and also to some extent ambiguous. He was earlier portrayed as a comic character but later on could be interpreted as a malevolent villain. But if Shylock is taken as a comic character the whole power of the play is lost. He would almost become a ridiculous villain. It could also be that Shakespeare created Shylock as a match for Marlowe’s Jew- one that was terrible, imposing but also human.

Shylock is one of the main characters of the play but this also depends on the way that his character is played. He has mostly been portrayed as a comic character but when he is the tragic protagonist he ‘usurps the center of the stage.’ Shylock “represents the killjoy against whom the pleasure-loving characters unite.” He represents a “a-social miserliness” and thus his villainy is somewhat mitigated and brought within the scope of humanist debate. Shylock exists as a visible complication to the smooth running of Bassanio’s friendship with Antonio and his courtship of Portia. One can almost say that is the character that makes the plot possible.

As John Palmer has said, Shylock is “An imaginative realization of what it means to wear the Star of David.” Shylock is a Jew in a Gentile Society, an alien who is never accepted. He is proud of his race, his religion but he is up against a Venetian society that is insufferable to the outsider. Even his daughter attacks all that he holds...

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Uploaded by:   shahinsting

Date:   05/11/2001

Category:   Shakespeare

Length:   5 pages (1,208 words)

Views:   2671

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