In The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, a Jewish man named Shylock is portrayed as a villain because of his occupation — a moneylender who charges interest. Since Christians couldn’t charge other Christians interest, the Jews were the moneylenders since they can charge interest on Christians. Shakespeare depicts Shylock as a greedy, rude, and an unaffectionate person who only cares about himself and downgrades others. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses Old Testament biblical allusions showing off Shylock’s character, making the audience view Shylock exactly as he depicted him.
When we first meet Shylock, he is immediately dealing with a client. Bassanio, the client, is asking Shylock for a loan of 3,000 ducats under his fiends name, Antonio, who will pay him back in three months. Shylock immediately recognizes who Antonio was and knows that he is wealthy enough to pay him back in three months, even though his investments for his business right now are not that strong. While discussing interest with Antonio, Shylock immediately brings up the story about Jacob and Laban. The story is that as Jacob was leaving Laban’s with his wife, Laban’s daughter, Laban wanted to give Jacob something in return. Jacob said “let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages” (Genesis 30.32). While passing through the flock, Jacob “took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted” (Genesis 30.37-39). As Shylock tells this story to Antonio he is really using the allusion to justify his money lending profits. Shylock tells Antonio “This was a way to thrive, and he was blest” (1.3.97). This is where Shylock got his idea of charging interest when he was lending money to people. Shakespeare uses this to portray Shylock as a very greedy person who will pull any secret move to get his money even though they may be harmless acts. Therefore, from the audience’s first glance at Shylock they see what a person he really is: a person using secret creative ways in order to get rich.
As we get deeper into the storyline, Launcelot Gobbo says to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, to look out for Lorenzo who is coming to the house as soon as Shylock leaves. Jessica was secretly in love with Lorenzo, a Christian, behind her father’s back. Shylock saw Launcelot say something to Jessica, but didn’t hear what it was. When Launcelot exits, Shylock asks Jessica, “What says that fool of Hagar’s offspring, ha” (2.5.45)? According to the bible Hagar’s offspring refers to as “the records of the generations of Ishmael…whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maid, bore to Abraham” (Genesis 25.12). So, calling someone Hagar’s offspring is a very offensive term to non-Jews, implying that they are being compared to the outcast of Ishmael. Since Launcelot was not a Jew, Shylock uses this allusion to make the non-Jews seem inferior to the Jews by downgrading them. By Shylock saying this he immediately portrays himself as a person who speaks negatively about other people, especially non-Jews, showing the audience how rude he was causing them to see him in a negative way.
As the play comes toward the end, Antonio is in debt and both the Duke and Bassanio are begging for Shylock to have mercy on Antonio since he can’t pay back the 3,000 ducats. Shylock, however, refuses and wants the pound of flesh Antonio promised him if he couldn’t pay him back. After many arguments between Shylock and Bassanio, Antonio turns to Bassanio and tells him that he shouldn’t bother arguing with a Jew and that he might as well do stuff that seem impossible instead. Antonio says “You may as well do anything most hard, As seek to soften that—than which what’s harder?—His Jewish heart” (4.1.70-81). This concept of someone having a hard heart goes back to the story of Pharaoh where it says “And the lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them” (Exodus 9.12). The same way how Pharaoh didn’t let the Jews out of Egypt, Shylock didn’t let Antonio get out of the deal they made. This causes the audience to view Shylock as an unaffectionate person, which also makes the audience to think that since Shylock acts this way, all Jews do as well.
These three biblical allusions have changed the way the audience views the play. The references to the Old Testament have identified Shylock, the Jew, as an entirely negative person. Although Shylock views himself positively, the characters surrounding him including the audience don’t. Who seemed as a moneylender at the start turned out to be a blood-hungry man, and these three biblical allusions strictly proved that.
Works Cited Page
“Bereishit – Genesis – Chapter 25 (Parshah Chayei Sarah and Toldot).” (Parshah Chayei Sarah and Toldot) – Tanakh Online – Torah – Bible, www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8220.
“Bereishit – Genesis – Chapter 30 (Parshah Vayeitzei).” (Parshah Vayeitzei) – Tanakh Online — Torah – Bible, www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8225/jewish/Chapter-30.htm.
“Shemot – Exodus – Chapter 9 (Parshah Va’eira).” (Parshah Va’eira) – Tanakh Online – Torah – Bible, www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9870.
Shakespeare, William, et al. “1.3.97.” The Merchant of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
Shakespeare, William, et al. “2.5.45.” The Merchant of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
Shakespeare, William, et al. “4.1.77-78.” The Merchant of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.