In the play the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, the character Shylocks portrayal changes a great deal. This mans image goes from that of a cruel and evil murder to a pitiful and helpless beggar of mercy. These circumstances raise the question of what kind of man Shylock truly is, and whether or not the reader should feel pity for him. There is no doubt that Shylock is a man with faults, but there is evidence to suggest that his intentions though cruel and heartless are the result of years of unjust provocation on the part of Antonio.
Shylock reveals a very dark side of himself once he has Antonio at his mercy. Out of context, Shylocks actions would be perceived by most people to be savagely unmerciful. Shylock refuses twice the bond which is owed to him by Antonio, and upon seeing his determination to have Antonios life, the Duke asks him вHow shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none? (IV,I, 88) Shylocks response to this is вWhat judgment shall I fear, doing no wrong? (IV, I, 89) In this he is clearly saying that he believes his ctions to be completely justified.
In order to make a reasonable argument on Shylocks behalf, a reader must see this exchange as more than the simple collection of a debt. There is a bitter past and a history of problems between Shylock and Antonio. Some of these problems become clear to the reader when Shylock states to the reader: How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian,But more for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice. If I catch him nce upon the hip, I will feed the fat that ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails, Even there where merchants most do congregate, on me, my bargains, and my well won-thrift. Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribeIf I forgive him! (I,III,38-49) In other words he is accusing Antonio of being a vicious anti Semite whose practice of loaning interest free money is a great threat to his livelihood. This quote indicates that Shylocks motives against Antonio stem both from a desire to gain personal revenge as well s revenge for the injustices of Christians suffered by the Jewish people.
Clearly Antonio and Shylocks relationship is not on the best of terms when Antonio comes to Shylock with a request for a loan of 3,000 ducats. In response to this request, Shylock replies: You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, And all for use of that which is mine own. Well then, it now appears you need my help. (I,III,109-112)He goes on to say: вFair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last , You spurned me on such day, another time You call me dog, and for these courtesies Ill lend you thus much money? I,III,124-127) One would think that Shylock is at this point able to look past these humiliating acts that Antonio had committed against him, and is willing to lent him a helping hand in his time in need, but rather than accept this help as a generous offering, Antonio replies:I am as like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee again. If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not As to thy friends, for when did friendship take A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But it rather to thine enemy, Who if he break, thou mayest with better face Exact the penalty. This is a very clear case of provocation. Antonio knows exactly the risk he is taking, and rather than attempt to foster any kind of peace with Shylock, he embraces hate and encourages Shylock to do the same. Under these circumstances it would take a very pious man to offer Antonio mercy. Shylocks inability to find this mercy for Antonio becomes forgivable. As a result Shylock becomes a man whom the audience sympathizes with at the end of the play.