Shakespeare is famous for his use of fate and symbolism in shaping his stories and characters. Whether it is the use of material items as representatives of deeper meaning, such as caskets, or strategically using the weather as a foreboding, there is always a deeper and more meaningful connotation to each aspect of his work. In some cases, it is to create humor or satire, and in others it is to highlight a much more serious theme such as love, hatred, religion, or loss. What is the most interesting about The Merchant of Venice is the portrayal of his first real, tangible heroine, Portia, and one of his most misunderstood villains, Shylock. But does the audience and time period affect who is the true villain, or did Shakespeare truly write Shylock to be the antagonist of the play? Among many other things Shakespeare is famous for, creating doubt and stirring curiosity in the circumstances of minorities or the forbidden certainly leave questions as to his intention in creating characters like Shylock and Antonio, and who they really are.
In considering the time period and context, Shylock has emerged as the villain as a result of period anti-Semitism, and what it meant to be a Christian then. The modern villain may very well be Antonio given the way that times have changed. Is Antonio simply the vessel to show the steep anti-Semitism, or is he truly evil at the core despite his unrequited love for someone, presumably Bassanio?
On a surface-level inspection making the characters one-dimensional, Shylock is a spiteful, vengeful, bitter man who will stop at nothing to exact the most afflicting of circumstances upon Antonio for reneging on their loan agreement. For the duration of the play, Shylock is portrayed as the antithetic foil to Antonio, who appears to value love more than his own fortune. However, Shylock has brief glimpses of humanized emotion, particularly when he pines for the ring his deceased wife gave to him after his daughter steals it, ashamed of him and is an unwilling product of his suffocating hatred for Venetian Christians.
Shakespeare allows only small glimpses into what propels Shylock as a human, as a man, but does make a grandiose assertion to infer that he is far more wounded than he is simply menacing. Anti-Semitism was a rampant and wide-held belief system prominent in the time period. Christianity was the prevalent and accepted belief system, and those born to other religious sects such as Judaism, as Shylock was, were mocked and made to believe in their inferiority. As a Jew, Shylock was predisposed at birth to a difficult life, peppered with oppression and hatred purely based on his background. After a lifetime of mockery and social oppression, it is much easier to understand his life circumstances, and his disposition. As a minority (and one with disposable income), it’s quite easy to assume that Shylock likely had to contend with much disapproval and complication in affirming his right to his own fortune or social status that comes with it. After a lifetime living on the short end of a large rift, his anger and bitterness with the vast Christian population and their treatment of him helps to understand why his disposition and vengefulness is so adverse. Pain that deep can inflict lifelong emotional scarring, which is easy to use as a justification for revenge. His opportunity to exact that revenge is a moment of weakness in an otherwise well-oiled machine of hatred: Antonio.
It is clear that Antonio spends much of his time pining over some type of emotional unrest, perhaps at the unrequited love of his friend Bassanio. Whatever the actual cause of his perpetual dissatisfaction, Shylock is able to exploit his weakness for interest-free loans and habitual generosity to a man who is unable to be responsible for his favors. Antonio, a strident anti-Semite, requires the assistance of a man whom he would spend his life ridiculing and oppressing with hatred, and this was Shylock’s perfect moment to seize the reins, putting Antonio in the position which would predictably put his own life in danger and turn the tables of fate. Is a pound of flesh compensatory for a lifetime of hatred? Perhaps to Shylock this is so, however he is foolish enough in his haste to exact his punishment in the eyes of the law, that he forgets how to reasonably ensure that he would be successful, which is evident when Portia is able to outwit him at his own game in court.
In the mindset of someone reading Shakespeare at the time, Antonio is simply a vessel in which the devaluing of Jews or other denominations can be seen. The message that Christianity is the right way to live is not without any fanfare, nor is it necessary to understand that point. For a Christian reading or watching this play, the villain is Shylock, who is willing to make a Devil’s deal with Antonio purposefully in order to watch him suffer financially as well as physically as it would just be in his nature without understanding. Antonio never makes physical threats or contact with Shylock, as his blunt hatred for him exists only in ideal differences. However, for a Jew with any noticeable wealth or fortune in business, their prosperity was an insult to those who believed they were did not follow the correct path to salvation. Antonio is representative of the Christian population as a whole, while Shylock takes on the foil to this, representing the Jewish population as a stereotype. Antonio has much opportunity to suggest that Shylock is beneath him, since Shylock appears to be a spiteful and menacing character, thus fueling Antonio’s preconceived beliefs about who he is as a man and a Jew. However, Shylock is simply the product of the hateful environment he has had to live in.
In the mindset of someone reading the play today, especially given how far we have come since the time of Shakespeare, it is difficult to read Antonio without disliking him fundamentally, without feeling pity for his own misfortune. He has clearly made a connection, presumably to Bassanio, which he cannot fulfill. He lives in a consistent state of bewilderment and melancholy, doing all but giving his life for a man who does not reciprocate those feelings or treatment.
In short, it is quite possible to read The Merchant of Venice and see the villain being much more than just one person, but perhaps even an intangible source, such as society. Shakespeare was clever enough to draw attention to women and irony, and perhaps it was always his intention to create a story that can be seen one dimensionally (with characters in set roles) and through a kaleidoscope of varying role reversals.