Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, agrees to loan Bassanio three thousand ducats for a term of three months. Bassanio assures Shylock that Antonio will guarantee the loan, but Shylock is doubtful because Antonio’s wealth is currently invested in business ventures that may fail. In the end, however, Shylock decides that Antonio’s guarantee of the loan will be sufficient assurance, and asks to speak with him. When Antonio arrives, Shylock, in an aside, confesses his hatred for the man. Antonio, Shylock says, is a Christian who lends money without interest, which makes more difficult the practice of usury, in which money is lent out at exorbitant interest rates. Shylock is also incensed by Antonio’s frequent public denunciations of Shylock. Antonio makes it clear to Shylock that he is not in the habit of borrowing or lending money, but has decided to make an exception on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Their conversation leads Antonio to chastise the business of usury, which Shylock defends as a way to thrive.
As he calculates the interest on Bassanio’s loan, Shylock remembers the many times that Antonio has cursed him, calling him a “misbeliever, cut-throat, dog / And spit upon [his] Jewish gaberdine” (I.iii.
Shylock is an arresting presence on the stage, and although Antonio may be the character for whom the play is named, it is Shylock who has come to dominate the imaginations of critics and audiences alike. Shylock’s physical presence in the play is actually not so large, as he speaks fewer lines than other characters and does not even appear in the play’s final act. However, in many ways, the play belongs to Shylock. The use of a Jew as the central villain was not unknown to Renaissance comedy, as evidenced by The Jew of Malta, a wildly popular play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, which revolves around a malevolent, bloodthirsty Jewish character named Barabas. Shylock, however, differs in that his malice seems to stem, at least in part, from the unkindness of his Christian colleagues. Exactly how to read Shylock has been a matter of some debate, and even the most persuasive scholars would be hard-pressed to call him a flattering portrait of a Jew. One could certainly argue, however, that Shylock receives far less of a stock portrayal than what was common in Shakespeare’s time, and that, given the constant degradation he endures, we can even feel something akin to sympathy for him.
At the heart of any sympathy we might feel for Shylock lies the fact that the bonhomie and good nature that so mark Antonio’s appearance with Bassanio disappear, and his treatment of Shylock is unexpectedly harsh and brutal. Even though Bassanio and Antonio require a favor from Shylock, Antonio’s is still a tone of imperious command, and his past, present, and future attitude toward Shylock is one of exceptional contempt. Shylock vividly illustrates the depth of this contempt, wondering aloud why he should lend Antonio money when Antonio has voided his “rheum,” or spit, on Shylock’s beard, and he kicked Shylock as he would a stray dog (I.iii.
Shylock is noticeably different from Shakespeare’s other great villains, such as Richard III or Iago, in several ways. In the first place, these other villains see themselves as evil, and while they may try to justify their own villainy, they also revel in it, making asides to the audience and self-consciously comparing themselves to the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Marlowe’s Jew, Barabas, is a similarly self-conscious villain. Though the Christian characters of The Merchant of Venice may view Jews as evil, Shylock does not see himself in that way. His views of himself and others are rational, articulate, and consistent. Also, Shakespeare’s other villains are generally more deceitful, passing themselves off as loving and virtuous Christians while plotting malevolently against those around them. Shylock, on the other hand, is an outcast even before the play begins, vilified and spat upon by the Christian characters. Shylock’s actions are relatively open, although the other characters misunderstand his intentions because they do not understand him.
Indeed, Shylock understands the Christians and their culture much better than they understand him. The Christian characters only interact with Shylock within a framework of finance and law—he is not part of the friendship network portrayed in Act I, scene i. Though Bassanio asks him to dine with them, Shylock says in an aside that he will not break bread with Christians, nor will he forgive Antonio, thereby signaling his rejection of one of the fundamental Christian values, forgiveness. Shylock is able to cite the New Testament as readily as Jewish scripture, as he shows in his remark about the pig being the animal into which Christ drove the devil. Antonio notes Shylock’s facility with the Bible, but he uses this ability to compare Shylock to the devil, who, proverbially, is also adept at quoting scripture. As we see more of Shylock, he does not become a hero or a fully sympathetic character, but he is an unsettling figure insofar as he exposes the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the Christian characters. Shylock never quite fits their descriptions or expectations of him. Most significantly, they think he is motivated solely by money, when in fact his resentment against Antonio and the other Christians outweighs his desire for monetary gain.