Date of Award

Spring 1970

Document Type



Languages & Literature

First Advisor

Henry Burgess

Second Advisor

John Semmens

Third Advisor

Rev. Humphrey Courtney


The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of the most controversial plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. Though written more than three hundred fifty years ago, it has received more divergent interpretations than any of Shakespeare’s plays with the possible exception of Hamlet, these divergences arise chiefly from the uncertainties resting upon and within the Character of Shylock. Interpretations of Shylock have varied widely according to the various explanations which actors and critics have given his character.

These divergent interpretations have given rise to three clearly defined conceptions of the role. The first is the conception of Shylock as a grotesquely comic figure. In this interpretation Shylock is viewed as a senile, meddling old fool, made fun of by all who surround him. Because of his senility he often talks and mutters to himself, providing much humor throughout the play. He is the nosey old man who tries to be important and enter into the active, merry world of the younger generation, who, in turn, laugh at his antics and attempts. He is never treated or taken seriously until his attack upon Antonio’s life. After Portia’s rescue of Antonio, Shylock is sent off, once again harmless and comic.

The second interpretation paints Shylock much as Christopher Marlowe portrayed Barrabus in The Jew of Malta. He is treated unsympathetically as the embodiment of cruelty and malice. Shylock is greedy and merciless, caring only for himself, his revenge and his money. He is not human, possessing only animal instincts and passions. He reigns supreme as a malignant and vengeful villain. This is the Shylock who gave his name its conventional meaning.