Shylock-Reverberating through Centuries-Remembering Shakespeare Part 2



In the second of this series, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, we have a closer look at Shylock. In the first of this series, we had a look at “The Immortal Falstaff” (King Henry IV-Part 2) (see blog    ) .

Tools: In understanding Shakespeare’s characters and plays, we use different tools. As we saw in the blog on Falstaff- the understanding history tool, the drama of ideas, the stagecraft tools help us understand the richness and complexity of Shakespeare.

In this blog we have a closer look at Shylock.

O my Ducats! O My Daughter !       

The character Shylock is portrayed as equating his wealth with his daughter, both of whom are taken away from him.

Literary influences

The literary models and influences which could have served as a base for Shakespeare’s creation of the character –Shylock- are Barabus-the stereotypical Jewish character of the playwright Christopher Marlowe’s- The Jew of Malta.(1589) The character Barabus is portrayed in a negative stereotypical way by Marlowe. Marlowe was an influence on Shakespeare, but was killed in a bar room brawl at the age of 29, just when Shakespeare was starting his writings.

The other influence is the trial and execution of Dr.Roderigo Lopez, the doctor accused of trying to poison Queen Elizabeth I. A Portuguese converso or New Christian of Jewish ancestry, he is the only royal doctor to have been executed, and may have inspired the character Shylock.Insisting his innocence, the doctor reportedly averring from the scaffold ‘that he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ’ – a statement that, from of a man of Jewish background , prompted mocking laughter from the crowd. (Wikipedia)

Arc of development of character

  In this play, one finds another way of looking at this tool of “Arc of development of character’. Some of Shakespeare’s characters evolve through the play.

For example , Prince Hal, evolves from the tavern world to the world of courts, when he becomes King Henry V, and disowns Falstaff, who represents the tavern world.

In the “Merchant of Venice” the character Shylock does not change much through the play. His defining parts- his attachment for money, his relating money to sense of moral goodness, his sense of Justice-Revenge remain the same throughout the play.

What changes is his relation to power, as different characters, sequence of events come into play to change Shylock’s situation.

Breaking beyond the play’s confines

Harold Bloom writes that in creating Shylock, Shakespeare created a character which breaks beyond the play’s confines. Probably Shakespeare himself had not thought of creating this level of art, but as the play develops and especially in the light of the events of the 20th century, the Nazi atrocities, people will have sympathy for the character Shylock, who was denied his rights, his daughter elopes with Lorenzo, in the end of the play he is tricked by the Judge Portia into not having his pound of flesh (as no drop should be spilt) and he is forced to convert to Christianity by the Merchant (Antonio)

Drama of Ideas         

Another way of looking at this work is to sift through the underlying ideas in play. The Judge (Portia) tells that – In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. This hits upon the theme of forgiveness, which is seen as a way forward to life, love. On the other hand-the theme of justice, law, revenge do not lead to salvation, but to damnation, death, tragedy.

This larger theme is seen to play out that the unity is among individuals, and the unifying agent is God.

In the modern world, this theme of mercy, forgiveness is especially relevant, in the multiracial societies which we live in.

In Libyan context

Discussing this with Libyans, one can sense that if one has to move forward, there has to be a willingness to forgive and move forward, in a society, coming out of 42 years of brutal dictatorship, followed by 5 years of on-going Civil War.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,


It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven


Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;


It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:


’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes


The throned monarch better than his crown;


His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,


The attribute to awe and majesty,


Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;


But mercy is above this sceptred sway;


It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,


It is an attribute to God himself;


And earthly power doth then show likest God’s


When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,


Though justice be thy plea, consider this,


That, in the course of justice, none of us


Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;


And that same prayer doth teach us all to render


The deeds of mercy.


Act IV, Scene 1-Merchant of Venice


Having a reading journal, will help one dig deeper into the characters and also reflect on how these can be used for us to grow as humans. Many press media articles have stated on how many new words and expressions which Shakespeare is supposed to have introduced, which are still used today. The famous “Pound of Flesh” of Merchant of Venice. Over the years, we have looked at the nuances of some books-management, fiction and non-fiction, which hopefully makes one go beyond the mundane, routine clichéd versions.

Thinking Hats Looking at a work through the post colonial, feminist, Marxist, modernist perspective made us examine the same works in different lights. So , if you read a work like “Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri (see blog


) and think of it from the perspective of the main female characters- the mother – Gauri and the daughter Bela –one comes to a different perspective of the same story, than if you look at it from the angle of the mother in law. Applying the feminist perspective to the three main female characters can be an interesting complex exercise, as one sees shift through the generations. Gauri, became the daughter in law of the family twice, in a very interesting story spread across generations, continents, and troubled histories.

Concluding thoughts

In analyzing –deep reading the character Shylock one sees how Justice-Revenge can lead to disharmony. It is a lesson which many societies can imbibe.

Speaking on the art of Shakespeare- the words of Harold Bloom sum it up very well

“Christian comedy triumphs, Jewish villainy is thwarted, and everything is for the best, if only Shylock’s voice and presence would stop reverberating which they never have, and never will, four centuries after Shakespeare composed  and in the centuries to come.”


Reading Group Discussion questions

After reading this discussion, one can answer-discuss the following themes

  • In Analyzing-Merchant of Venice- through the “Tool” of Arc of development of character- Does the character Shylock change in his main characteristics through the play
  • Which character of Shakespeare is given as an example of someone who changes through the play
  • Shylock’s relation to power changes through the play- who are the characters who bring this into effect and how
  • In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation-Portia tells this to Shylock, appealing to him to change his stance. Give a modern example of Reconciliation which helped society move forward. Hint- Do research on Truth and Reconciliation commission of South Africa.
  • What “Thinking Hats” can be used to analyze a literary work?
  • Who are the female characters in Lowland who cast a different light on the same work, if read from Feminist perspective?


Professor Marc Conner Although the world urges us to read and love Shakespeare, his plays are difficult, demanding, strange—most of us struggle just to make sense of Shakespeare, let alone to see the many reasons why he is held in such high regard.


Suggested Further reading

How to read and understand Shakespeare Professor Marc Conner



anatomy of influence 1
Harold Bloom- Anatomy of influence


Hath not a Jew Eyes..Shylock’s famous speech, rendered

by Pacino-2004


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