Read again the following extract from Act 4 Scene 1.
SHYLOCK: I pray you give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well. Send the deed after me
And I will sign it.
DUKE: Get thee gone, but do it.
GRATIANO: In Christening shalt thou have two godfathers:
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more
To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font.
Many critics have claimed that The Merchant of Venice is effectively concluded with these lines: “…With the departure of Shylock from the stage, the play is over…”
To what extent do you agree?
Shylock a huge influence on the play so a tempting judgement
Shylock merely a villain in 1594 – play a Comedy
Much remains to be resolved in Act 5…
Shylock has such a huge influence in our response to The Merchant of Venicethat it is tempting to agree with the critical viewpoint expressed in the question. The central interest that this play, written more than four hundred years ago, has for us is the character of Shylock: he is dramatically interesting because he is a terrific portrait of a monster (evil is, sadly, intrinsically interesting in a way that virtue is not); he is complex psychologically in a way that distinguishes him from many of the other characters in the play; and his role in the play means that he is essential if the play’s central conflicts (and thus the play’s dramatic momentum) are to be maintained.
It is undeniable, though, that at the end of Act IV, as Shylock leaves the stage, there is a great deal of “unfinished business” still to be resolved in The Merchant of Venice. The idea that the play has been “effectively concluded” implies that the final Act is superfluous. This is far from the case. The business of the rings is not simply trivial: when Bassanio gives away his wedding ring, Portia seizes the moment as an opportunity to “lay down the law” with her new husband. Never again will this young woman “be curbed by the will” (I.ii.23-24) of a man. Perhaps most importantly, the final Act begins with a dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo that reveals that all is not well in this relationship that seemed to offer hope that the gap that separates Jew and Christian would not be an insurmountable one:
Lorenzo. In such a night
Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
As far as Belmont.
Jessica. In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he lov’d her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith,
And ne’er a true one.
While this scene is often played in a bantering fashion, it is clear that this is an important exchange in terms of the development of the relationship between these characters. It is the last time that we see the two together onstage and is tempting to see Jessica’s comment that Lorenzo has “St[olen] her soul” (V.i.19) as a final judgement on their marriage. Almost as significant is the cruel way that Lorenzo describes his wife’s flight from her father: the fact that he describes her as “steal[ing] from the wealthy Jew” reminds her of the fact that she literally stole her father’s gold and jewels to provide herself with a dowry and the description of her father as “the wealthy Jew” is deeply unsympathetic.
It is also important to note that when this play was first performed in 1594 the play would have been considered to be a Romantic Comedy. Shylock, therefore, would have been regarded straightforwardly as the play’s villain. He would have been seen, primarily, as an obstacle in the way of the marriage of the two young lovers, Bassanio and Portia. The fact that the character of Shylock has come to take such prominence within the play is a consequence of the way in which the play has changed its meaning since the seismic change in the way in which anti-Semitism has been viewed since the Holocaust. The modern audience, aware of the terrible dangers of prejudice, is undoubtedly much more aware of the anti-Semitic nature of the work. Shylock is described as “the Jew” throughout and there can be little doubt that the way in which he is depicted conforms with the stereotypical view of Jews in European history: he is cruel and heartless throughout; is obsessed with revenge and money (“I did dream of money bags tonight”, II.v.18); and despises all Christians on principle (“I hate him for he is a Christian”, I.iii.37). Despite the occasional glimpses of a more interesting, complex character (particularly in the famous speech in III.i that has been transformed by modern critics into an eloquent plea for equality), Shylock is, essentially, an archetypal character: “the Cruel Jew”. Crucially, when we see him lose his daughter, Shakespeare does not grasp the opportunity to “humanize” him: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear” (III.i79-80).
It is undoubtedly true that Shylock’s presence hangs over the play’s final Act, souring the comic mood. (Recent directors of the play have seized on this: in Trevor Nunn’s production Jessica brings the play to a close by singing the Torah, the Jewish lament for the dead; and in Michael Radford’s film a melancholy Jessica is seen standing alone, looking regretfully at Leah’s ring.) But to see the play as effectively concluding “with Shylock’s departure from the stage” is to distort the play. The play remains a Comedy (though it is a complex one). To view it as finishing with Shylock’s exit is to simplify it by transforming it into Shylock’s tragedy.