In William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", there are undoubtedly times when Shylock is hated unreservedly by the audience, and yet at other times he may become a figure of sympathy. Modern perceptions of him are frequently the direct opposite of what would have been expected from the Elizabethans. In this essay, I will explore both sides of the audience’s perception of him.

Shylock’s opening line in the play is "Three thousand ducats, well." In most productions, he has already been marked by the audience as a Jew, owing to his costume and frequently exaggerated Jewish features. By immediately conforming to the Elizabethan stereotype of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock is intended to instantly set the audience against him. This does not make him a villain in itself, but it certainly makes it more likely that the audience will see his actions in an unsympathetic light later on. In a modern production, where the audience is inevitably more sensitised to the plight of the Jewish race, such instant dislike and suspicion may not appear so readily. However, at the time it was written, there can be no doubt that Shylock puts himself immediately on a bad foot with the audience. Furthermore, when Antonio asks, “Is your gold and silver ewes and rams?”, Shylock replies “I make it breed as fast.” By showing his proficiency as a banker, and his arrogance, Shylock does not endear himself to the audience, and further conforms to the stereotype of the wealthy Jewish banker.

The audience of Shakespeare's time would have been almost entirely Christian. Therefore, when Shylock says of Antonio “I hate him for he is a Christian,” he would immediately alienate most of the audience and again fails to stimulate any sympathy for himself. On the other hand, a modern audience could certainly appreciate Shylock’s point of view, given the treatment he suffers at the hands of the Christians. Not for the last time, modern perceptions of Shylock differ radically from those that Shakespeare would have seen in his own day.

Again referring to Antonio, Shylock adds "Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him." Shylock thus shows that he is bound to act in a certain way by his religion. The modern audience may feel that this loyalty to his religion is a point in Shylock’s favour; the Elizabethans were unlikely to share this opinion. To them, Shylock’s loyalty was unimportant since it was to Judaism and not to their Christianity. Shylock remarks that "Suffrance is the badge of all our tribe," and nowadays this would certainly seem stoic and shows that Shylock has humbly resigned himself to the role of the oppressed. Shylock’s speech shows that he does not complain and wallow in self-pity, but acknowledges that all Jews are fated to suffer in this way. The pathetic image of Shylock when Antonio "spits upon [Shylock’s] Jewish gabardine” undoubtedly arouses sympathy, as Shylock admits his weakness. It is when he does this that audiences today find him most sympathetic, whereas an Elizabethan crowd would think such weakness predictable from a race they so hated.

Therefore, even by the end of his first scene, perceptions of Shylock differ greatly between an audience watching today and an Elizabethan audience. In the light of the Holocaust, modern theatre-goers are inevitably more sympathetic to any Jewish character discriminated against because of his race. The Elizabethans, on the other hand, were quite the opposite, and would expect to see a Jew treated in this way. Moreover, modern performances of the play often reinterpret Shylock’s lines and present him in a more sympathetic light. The original performances would have deliberately exaggerated the negative aspects of Shylock’s character.

In the second act, Jessica remarks that she is "a daughter to [Shylock’s] blood but not to his manners." For the Elizabethans, this serves to distinguish the two characters and dissociate Jessica from the evils of her father. However, one might now interpret this line as the final stab in the back for Shylock – even his own daughter wishes to separate herself from him and – when she offers to "become a Christian, and [Lorenzo]’s loving wife” – his religion. Sympathy for Shylock is inevitably aroused when his last ally, and his "own flesh and blood", rejects him for a Christian. Shortly after, Lorenzo escapes with Jessica and "what gold and jewels she is furnished with". By stealing from her father, Jessica shows her complete loss of respect for her father, and emphasises by her actions her spiritual detachment from Shylock – and such isolation inevitably generates sympathy for him.

On the other hand, it is not long before Shylock behaves in a manner in which any audience would surely dislike him. By preventing Jessica enjoying "the vile squeaking of the wry-necked fife", Shylock demonstrates his lack of humour and, worse still, imposes this same intolerance on his daughter. This is perhaps surprising given that many of Shylock’s lines can be interpreted as sarcastic and laced with black humour, but it shows a side to Shylock’s character that would not generate sympathy even in a modern audience. In a similar vein, when Shylock discovers his daughter has eloped, he cries "Find the girl! She hath the stones upon her and the ducats." Hence Shylock suggests that his only motivation for finding his daughter is to return his wealth. However, as the audience discover later in the play, Shylock has a special sentimental attachment to the stone from his days as a bachelor. Additionally, this speech is reported by Salarino, who – as a Christian and a friend of Antonio – inevitably exaggerates the words of Shylock to portray him in a negative light. A modern audience would therefore take his amusing performance with a pinch of salt. However, an Elizabethan audience might have taken his report as an honest one, implicitly trusting the Christian character.

It is with his famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech that Shylock begins to reverse his role as a villain even in the eyes of an Elizabethan audience. Perhaps this speech even opened the eyes of some of Shakespeare's original audience to the hopeless process of discrimination, and the scene completely undermines any argument that Shakespeare was himself anti-Semitic. Here, Shylock generates his own sympathy from the audience, and demonstrates that his own Christian-hating behaviour is a product of the way he is treated.

In the third act, Shylock’s vengeful "I thank God, I thank God" on hearing of Antonio’s ships’ misfortune seems to counteract any sympathy he had summoned so far. This is simply Shylock being vengeful and wishing to carry out his execution of Antonio. Also, the repetition of the word "God" from a "faithless Jew" would have seemed ironic to an Elizabethan audience. On the other hand, Shylock is under much strain at this stage in the play, due to the flight of his daughter, and so perhaps his vindictive desires can be excused a little. Nevertheless, to an audience looking for character flaws in the Jewish character, Shylock will certainly gain no support from this comment.

During the famous trial scene, Shylock repeats "I’ll have my bond" several times. Shylock is confident that the legality of the contract cannot be disputed, and plans to show Antonio no mercy. In Shakespeare’s time, the audience would have found such mercilessness to a Christian character, especially one of Antonio’s popularity, quite unforgivable, and again Shylock fails to stimulate any sympathy for his cause. However, a modern audience could quite easily see that, since Antonio has "many a time and oft rated [Shylock] for [his] usances", Shylock now sees his chance for revenge, and intends to be as unrelenting as Antonio. Antonio himself shows no tolerance – "I’m as like to call thee [a cur] again" – and so cannot expect to receive any better treatment himself. Shylock reverses Antonio’s words in the phrase "Since I am a dog, beware my fangs" – that is to say, having been abused for so long, he will not hesitate to turn the tables on Antonio.