Getting to Know Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Shylock is the Jewish character that lends money to Antonio, hates the Christians because he thinks they hate him, tries to stop his daughter’s marriage to her beloved, and represents one of the most complex and maturely-created characters of Shakespeare’s plays. But how did Shakespeare know about Jews when he knew none in person?

Maurycy Gottlieb's painting based on 'The Merchant of Venice'.
Shylock is a Jewish character, much of whose characteristics are built upon Shakespeare’s second-hand information of Jews. (Image: Maurycy Gottlieb/Public domain)

Shylock, the central Jewish character of The Merchant of Venice, is terribly oppressed by the majority Christian community. He is usually after justice and vengeance and is thoroughly humiliated and punished at the end of the play. The Elizabethan audience knew how to laugh at such plays and be amused, while the modern reader finds it too difficult to do so. What causes this gap?

Judaism in Elizabethan England

Many have wondered if Shylock’s character was inspired by a real Jew. England was the first European country to expel its Jews in 1290, and warn them that their return would mean death. The threat remained valid during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and no openly Jewish people were known in London back then. Thus, the hypothesis that Shylock’s character was based on a real person’s is not supported so far.

Scholars like Harold Bloom or James Shapiro have written about this aspect of the play. Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare also features a great chapter on this issue. Reading these sources, one can conclude that Shakespeare did not know any Jewish person in practice. He has built Shylock’s character around what he has heard and read about Jews.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta

One source available to Shakespeare was plays and literature portraying Jews. The most famous example is called The Jew of Malta, written by Christopher Marlowe. In the early 1590s, Marlowe had some very popular plays in London. His early death at the age of 29 occurred in 1593 when Shakespeare was just about to move into his mature playwright stage.

The photograph depicts a scene from 'The Merchant of Venice' in which Shylock is seen after the trial.
Shylock is portrayed less negatively than typical Jews in other plays, such as Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. (Image: Sir John Gilbert / Public domain)

The Jew of Malta was written in 1589, perhaps, and its main character Barabas, represented a ‘typical’ Jew in the eyes of the English: killing the sick at night, poisoning wells, accusing Christians of crimes, extorting money, tormenting the mad, and so forth. Marlowe had portrayed Barabas in the most negative stereotypes of medieval Judaism imaginable, and these were the bases for Shylock’s character. However, Shylock is not as negatively depicted.

Learn more about the drama of ideas in Henry V.

The Background of the Play

Shakespeare might have started writing the play at the same time as a former Jew was executed for treason. In 1594, Queen Elizabeth’s personal doctor, the Portuguese-born Roderigo Lopez, was arrested and charged with plotting to poison the Queen. Even though he was no longer a Jew, and he professed to be a practicing Christian, the court found him guilty and executed him in front of a large London crowd. Shakespeare might also have been present in the crowd.

On the other hand, some argue that he started writing the play in around 1596 since it is closer to his mature works. Shylock, despite the other Jewish stereotypes in plays, is a much more complex and mature character.

The Arc of Character Development in Shakespeare’s Plays

Character arc, which shows the rise and fall of a character, is a vital tool for understanding Shakespeare. However, it does not work as well for Shylock as he does not change throughout the play. There is an arc in his power, but none in his characteristics.

To understand Shylock, one must consider the defining parts of the character—the things about him that will not change—as well as his relationship to power as the play proceeds. To learn the defining parts of Shylock’s character, one should start with his first words: “Three thousand ducats, well.”

Learn more about Macbeth-“foul and fair”.

First Encounter with Shylock

He is counting the money that he wants to lend to Bassanio, in Antonio’s name. Bassanio needs the money to woo Portia into marrying him, and although Antonio has money, he has no cash. Antonio’s wealth is in his ships somewhere on the ocean.

Impression of Venice with four black characters standing in front of blue buildings.
Shylock cares deeply about money and defines a person’s “goodness” in terms of his ability and willingness to pay back debts. (Image: Mario Breda/Shutterstock)

Shylock’s words reveal that he sees morality in terms of money, in terms of paying one’s debts. He tells Bassanio that “Antonio is a good man,” and explains that he means “that he is sufficient” and will pay his debts.

He tries to make sure that he gets back the money by setting a horrible condition for Antonio, whom he actually hates: a pound of Antonio’s flesh, “to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me.”

Shylock and Antonio’s conflicts and problems also show much about his character but are beyond the scope of this article.

Common Questions about Shylock from The Merchant of Venice

Q: Who is Shylock in The Merchant of Venice?

Shylock is the strongest character in terms of character development in the play. He is a Jew, and he does not like Christians, as he clearly declares in his lines.

Q: Does Shylock’s character represent a real Jew?

Most probably, Shakespeare never knew a Jew in person and developed the Jewish side of Shylock’s character based on what other authors and history said about Jews.

Q: What was the state of Judaism in Elizabethan London?

England expelled its small Jewish population in 1290, and up to the time of Queen Elizabeth I, no openly practicing Jews were known of in London.

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