The Merchant of Venice – Exam Essay
Act 4 Scene 1: Does Shakespeare make it possible for you to have any sympathy for Shylock at this moment in the play?
The audience’s sympathy for the character of Shylock is likely to fluctuate during the course of the play. Whilst a modern audience would be shocked by the anti-Semitism evident throughout the play, Shylock’s stubborn pursuit of his “bond” can make him an unsympathetic character. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Introduction responds to the essay question
The Duke is a powerful figure in the Venetian court and would be seated on stage in a way that would convey his authority. He speaks for everyone when he says “the world thinks” that Shylock will show “mercy and remorse”. Whilst this may be hyperbolic, it suggests that the audience should be included in expecting Shylock to show mercy. This may influence the audience’s reaction to Shylock. In the Duke’s speech, Shakespeare employs a semantic field of compassion with adjectives and abstract nouns such as “tender”, “gentleness”, “love” and “pity”. He may be showing bias towards Antonio by personifying “his losses, / That have of late so huddled on his back”. This continues to the presentation, throughout the play, of Antonio as noble and innocent, suggesting that Shakespeare wants the audience to pity Antonio and side with him. The Duke’s final line here – “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” – again uses the inclusive “we” to implicate the audience in his view. It could be performed as a veiled threat because as we see later in this scene, the state of Venice is willing to destroy Shylock as its enemy. Referring to Shylock as “Jew” and the pun of “gentle”/ Gentile reminds the audience of the anti-Semitic context in which the ‘correct’ response is seen as a Christian one; alienating Shylock and perhaps engaging the audience’s sympathy. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Discusses stagecraft, treating this as a performed piece of theatre/ Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Uses technical terms to discuss features of Shakespeare’s language, supported by a quotation. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Refers to the audience (to answer the question and show that this is a piece of theatre) Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Shows knowledge of the play and its context. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Refers back to the essay question at the end of the paragraph.
Shylock’s speech is bold and uncharacteristically poetic. Unlike much of his speech elsewhere in the play, this is in verse and full of rhetorical flourishes, suggesting that here is Shylock at his most confident. He would be alone on stage facing a potentially hostile Christian courtroom and yet is strident and determined here, perhaps winning the audience’s respect and admiration. However a Shakespearean audience would have been likely to despise Shylock here as he was an outcast Jew and ruthlessly pursuing a Christian’s life. The repeated rhetorical questions – “are you answer’d?” – structures his speech and shows that he is challenging and questioning the Venetian state. Whether they have sympathy for Shylock or not, the audience – like Venice’s Christian community – can’t help but listen to him. He demands to be heard. Shylock is aggressive towards the Duke: “If you deny it, let the danger light / Upon your charter and your city’s freedom.” The abstract nouns “danger” and “freedom” threaten the very foundation of the state of Venice which was famed in Shakespeare’s era for its legal system. A modern audience may admire Shylock’s bravery here; a Shakespearean audience may have objected to Shylock’s threatening stance. He also admits to being irrational, to having no reason other than his “humour” to pursue his bond against Antonio. This may make an audience unsympathetic, a view expressed by Bassanio who calls Shylock an “unfeeling man” and uses alliterative ‘c’s to emphasise “the current of [Shylock’s] cruelty.” However, Shylock’s one line response to Bassanio is decisive and largely monosyllabic: “I am not bound to please thee with my answers.” It breaks the rhythm of iambic pentameter, showing that Shylock is refusing to enter into a discussion with the Christians. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Another reference to Shakespeare’s stagecraft. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Shows knowledge
Shylock’s final line in this extract is another question: “Wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?” This could be seen as a Biblical reference in which the serpent is seen as an enemy of humans. Shylock is making a metaphorical reference to the harm Antonio has caused him through his anti-Semitism and his interference with Shylock’s practice of usury. The sibilance in “serpent sting” suggests the hissing noise of a snake, emphasising Shylock’s question. The impact of this line may be to force the audience to acknowledge that Antonio, far from being the “poor merchant” as portrayed by the Duke, is at least partially responsible for Shylock’s vengeful, threatening attitude. We may not sympathise with Shylock but we can at least understand his perspective. Christian Venice may see Shylock as a monster; Shakespeare portrays him as undeniably human. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: The essay works through the WHOLE extract Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Shows knowledge of the wider play. Comment by St Clair-Ford, Tess: Finishes by answering the essay question.