Discuss Shylock’s dramatic function in
In order to ensure that we understand Shylock as a threat to the happiness of Venice’s citizens and lovers, Shakespeare uses a number of dramatic devices to amplify Shylock’s villainy. In doing so, however, he creates a character so compelling that many feel Shylock comes to dominate the play, thereby making him “too large.” Certainly, Shylock is a masterful creation. At his cruelest, he is terrifying, even more so because all of his schemes exist within the framework of the law. Seen in this light, Shylock becomes a kind of bogeyman, turning Venetian society’s own institutions on themselves. On the other hand, Shylock is also pitiable, even sympathetic, at times. He has been harshly handled by Venetian society and has seen his daughter elope with one of the same men who despise him. His passionate monologue in Act III, scene i reveals that he feels the same emotions as his opponents, and we cannot help but see him as a man. In fact, Shylock’s character is so well-rounded and intricate that many see him as the only interesting figure in a play that is not, in theory, supposed to center about him. Shylock’s scenes are gripping and fascinating, and many critics believe the play deflates every time he makes an exit.
In the end, how comic is
Discuss the relationship between Jessica and Shylock. Are we meant to sympathize with the moneylender’s daughter? Does Shakespeare seem ambivalent in his portrayal of Jessica?
In looking at the relationship between Jessica and Shylock, we are again forced to walk a fine line between sympathizing with and despising Shylock. For all intents and purposes, the play should label Shylock’s mistreatment by his own daughter as richly deserved. After all, he is spiteful, petty, and mean, and in his more cartoonish or evil moments, it is hard to imagine why Jessica should stay. At other times, however, Jessica’s escape seems like another cruel circumstance inflicted on Shylock, and her behavior offstage borders on heartless. Shylock is never more sympathetic than when he bemoans the fact that Jessica has taken a ring given to him in his bachelor days by his wife and has traded it for a monkey, the most banal of objects. Nor is Jessica ever able to produce satisfactory evidence that life in her father’s house is miserable. Her seeming indifference to Antonio’s fate—she and Lorenzo are more interested in the price of bacon—makes us wonder whether Jessica is actually more selfish and self-absorbed than the father she condemns. While Shylock is no saint, his resolve to collect his debt only seems to strengthen beyond reason after he discovers that Jessica has fled.