November 17, 2012
A Victimized Villain in Venice
What makes a villain? When introduced in films, the antagonist is often given tell-tale, gloomy music and shadowed lighting. They scowl and sneer and laugh in derision, and we know they are the opposition. In William Shakespeare’s plays, the villains often introduce themselves as such, stating their macabre intentions or hateful jealousies. From a psychological point of view, their thoughts are simple enough to understand. Occasionally, however, The Bard introduced characters so complex, they could be analyzed in many different ways. In The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, it may not be very hard to guess who the antagonist is, but the reason for his role as villain becomes muddled by distracting, humorous dialogue, strong lead protagonists, and conflicting statements about religion and social status. Shylock is one of the most complex villains in all of Shakespeare’s plays, even to the point of confusion among the best scholars (Smith). This is because Shylock takes on some of the most intricate human characteristics, and he represents those negative traits that make a villain more than just a plot point. Looking into his psyche is a pleasure for those who prefer the psychoanalytic lens, especially because that particular method of analysis “attempts to explain the hows and whys of human nature” (Bressler 124). By taking a close look at Shylock’s character through this lens, his motives can be broken into three more or less simple categories every person identifies with: discrimination, revenge, and greed.
To first understand why discrimination makes Shylock a villain rather than a victim, it is necessary to examine the discrimination brought against him. Shylock is a Jew. Other characters, protagonists even, jab at his religion and paint a negative picture about him through their snide remarks. Antonio, often referred to as the kindest of souls, refers to him as a devil, a dog, and an outcast (Shakespeare 1.3). When Shylock agrees to give Bassanio a loan, Antonio remarks that “The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind” (1.3). This would imply that because Shylock is a Jew, he is not ordinarily a kind person. Taking on that kind of abuse over an entire lifetime would be enough to make anyone bitter, and Shylock makes no secret about the negative effect it has on his character. Another attack comes when Shylock’s servant debates within himself whether or not to leave his master—not because Shylock is an unkind man, but because he is a Jew and might taint the servant’s reputation (2.2). The servant even admits “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal” (2.2). And if the servant’s view of Shylock is not traitorous enough, Shylock’s own daughter leaves him to elope with her love because she does not wish to be associated with the Jewish religion: Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3)
Notice in that quote she speaks of his blood and the fact that she is ashamed to be his daughter. In this case, manners refer to his religious views and actions based on them, rather than any cruel actions from her father (Sparknotes Editors). There is no evidence that Shylock is anything but a normal father for the time, and no evidence that he has wronged his daughter in any way other than who he was at birth (Sparknotes Editors). These examples alone would make Shylock an object of pity and not a villain. However, it is Shylock’s return of discrimination, even in response to the negative social status he endures, that makes him just as bad or worse. Shylock says of Antonio, “‘I hate him for he is a Christian’” (1.3). In that same scene, he goes on to say, “O father Abram, what these Christians are, / Whose own hard...