Shylock as a Tragic Hero in The Merchant of Venice

The elements of Shakespearean tragedy have proved to be a difficult subject for many literary analysts in the course of time. The most widely accepted view is that Shakespeare may have used Aristotle’s model of tragedy. However, various viewpoints have confronted this position by citing various inconsistencies. This paper seeks to demystify this premise by analyzing Shylock’s character as presented in The Merchant of Venice, as well as how he compares to Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. The author shall define a tragic hero according to Aristotle’s poetics and proceed to describe and compare it with Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock. Although shylock plays the role of a comic villain, the author finds that Shakespeare undermines his stock characters by giving them a voice which the audience sympathizes with. In this manner, Shakespeare turns his play on its head to enable the audience view Shylock as a tragic hero. Aristotle’s definition demands that a tragic hero must have excessive pride and a flaw of error in judgement. Thus, they must experience a reversal of fortune due to their error in judgement and suffer a fate that is greater than deserved. As the author elucidates, Shylock portrays these very same characteristics.

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            In Aristotle’s view, a tragic hero must be an object of fear and pity. These elements of tragedy are given much value and importance by repeated emphasis in his poetics (1449b27, 52al-4, 52a 38-bl., 52b36, 53al, a 3-7, 53b1, b5 bill-12, b l7-18). Tragedy is a mimesis of pitiable and fearful things (5.2a38bl), and accomplishes its characteristic effect through these emotions (49b27 53b11-12). The responses of pity and fear are closely connected by Aristotle to the fact that the hero undergoes a change in fortune: he claims that this change can be either from good to ill fortune or vice versa (51a14-15), and pity and fear are responses to this change. They “come about most especially when thing happen contrary to expectation, but on account of one another” (52a2-4). By combining what we know about Aristotle’s view of these emotions in genera with what he explicitly says in the Poetics, we arrive at three requirements so the character of the hero and the nature of his or her change in fortune: (1) the hero must be a generally good person, and undeserving of the suffering he encounters; (2) he must be similar to the members of the audience; and (3) his downfall must be causally intelligible, not simply arbitrary (Rorty 276). Thus, a tragic hero must have excessive pride and a flaw of judgement, which must then lead to his downfall to an undeserved fate.

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who decides to kill Antonio by exacting his due-a pound of flesh from a contract made with the merchant. In court Shylock loses and falls into disgrace for taking such a pitiless attitude to debt collection. With comic intentions, Shakespeare made the character a stereotypical image of the Jew in those days, that is, a person with a vicious hatred of Christians, a miser obsessed with money. He is perceived as an ordinary inferior who is consumed by greed. Nevertheless, this judgment is a premature one because Shylock, indeed, displays many humane qualities. During the Venetian renaissance, outsiders suffered brutal fate, especially those who had a Jewish origin. In Shakespeare’s play, Shylock represents such outsiders. He was assaulted, abused, spat on, and even called a dog, yet despite this, he continued to keep his true values. Universally, these values may not be seen as ideal. However, Shylock is a good person, considering the circumstances and challenges he experienced. He is simply a flawed being, and a tragic hero who fits the Aristotelian criteria of having hamartia, being a flawed human, and being temporarily in power just before suffering an undeserved fate.

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              In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s character portrays a tragic flaw or hamartia. His desire for revenge can be seen as a negative trait. Yet, it remains a human trait, especially when one considers Antonio’s treatment towards him. Antonio had spit, rejected, and assaulted Shylock by doing appalling things to him. “Fair sir, you spit on me Wednesday last;/ spurn’d me such a day you; another time/ you call’d me dog” (1.3.94­96). Shylock was offended by Antonio’s disdainful attitude and ill treatment that he allowed this to consume his judgment. His desire for revenge blinded him so much that he was ready to make every kind of sacrifice to pursue his call. When he was offered double the ducats he had loaned in the trial, he responded by replying “I stay here on my bond” (4.1.234). He was continually asked to take the offer. But with each request, he persisted on keeping his bond. His hamartia was his obsession for revenge, which he allowed to destroy and distort his judgment. Thus, Shylock fulfills the first requirement of a tragic hero as stated by Aristotle.

            The Aristotelian tragic hero must hold a position of power in the society and then lose it. In other words, they must start at prosperity and lose it in the end. The society’s hate towards shylock is immense. Nevertheless the cutoff Jewish society regards him highly.  The Christian characters in Shakespeare’s play refer to him as “the rich Jew.” Even the society knows well that he is a wealthy individual because he can loan 3000 ducats at once. In Venice, Shylock is famous. This can be attested by the act where Antonio gives Bassanio consent to go and try “what my credit can in Venice do” (1.1.177). He, surprisingly, finds Shylock. Bassanio’s choice for shylock, in deed, confirms that Shylock is running a big business. Unfortunately, when the court orders him to pay for the consequences of his revenge scheme, he plummets from this position. This, as a consequence, makes Shylock to qualify for the second element of the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero.

            Although Shylock can be seen as evil after a shallow analysis of The Merchant of Venice, he is actually a good person. When his daughter Jessica ran away to marry Lorenzo after stealing from him, he still valued her. The evidence collected during Salarino and Salanio’s conversation is a clear confirmation. It is said that he goes down the street while yelling what he treasures most “My daughter! O my ducats!” (2.8.15). At first, he mentions his daughter, then his money. So, it is evident that Shylock does not only value his money. If he had been purely evil, he would have completely disregarded his family. Another pointer to his humane character is the monologue in the ‘hath I am a Jew’ speech. As it reads, Shylock is overwhelmed by sadness, not jealousy. He has feelings. “hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (3.1.51-53). Here, he is using a ‘humane’ way to connect to the society. Nevertheless, his revenge mania draws him back. A deep analysis of his complex personality reveals his hidden human nature. Yet, he is spiritually wounded by the consequences of his actions. From the start of his revenge plot, he was doomed. His story arouses fear and empathy. In the end, Shylock discovers his fate by his own actions.

In conclusion, Shakespeare turns his play on its head to enable the audience to view Shylock as a tragic hero. Aristotle’s definition demands that a tragic hero must have excessive pride and a flaw of error in judgement. They must experience a reversal of fortune due to their error in judgement and suffer a fate that is greater than deserved. In The Merchant of Venice, these characteristics are clearly illustrated by Shylock’s character. A clear inspection of the play’s actions and storyline shows that failure to scrutinize Shylock’s character closely, one views him as an antagonist instead of the tragic hero he truly is. He meets the three requirements of a tragic hero as described above: (1) the hero must be a generally good person, and undeserving of the suffering he encounters; (2) he must be similar to the members of the audience; and (3) his downfall must be causally intelligible, not simply arbitrary (Rorty 276). Thus, he perfectly meets the criteria of Aristotelian definition of a Tragic Hero.

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