Within the various forms of literature, many notable authors have emerged as experts in their particular field. Shakespeare is viewed by many as one of the most profound and dramatic playwrights. He is generally noted for his complex dramas, tragedies, and comedies, all of which were written in a most eloquent and glorified manner. In one of his latter plays, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare attempts to portray the evil expressed by an individual who develops this way both because of the persecution he is faced with and the insufficient virtues he is given.
Few of Shakespeare’s characters embody pure evil like The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock. Shylock is a usurer and a malevolent, blood-thirsty old man consumed with plotting the downfall of his enemies. He is a malignant, vengeful character, filled with venomous malice; a picture of callous, unmitigated villainy, deaf to every appeal of humanity. Shylock is the antagonist counterpart to the naive, essentially good Antonio, the protagonist, who must defend himself against the devil Shylock. The evil he represents is one of the reasons Shakespeare chose to illustrate Shylock as a Jew.
According to many historians, Jews of his time were seen as the children of the Devil, the crucifiers of Christ and stubborn rejectors of God’s wisdom and Christianity. However, when Shakespeare created Shylock, he did not introduce him into the play as a purely flat character, consumed only with the villainy of his plot. One of the great talents that Shakespeare possessed was his ability to make each essential character act like a real, rational person, not the flimsy two-dimensional character one often encounters in modern plays.
Of all of Shakespeare’s characters, heroes or villains, their conduct is always presented as logical and justifiable from their points of view (Walley). To maintain the literary integrity of the play, Shakespeare needed to clarify why a man like Shylock would be wrought to such a pitch of vindictive hatred that he would contemplate murder. His evil must have some profound motivation, and that motivation is the evil done to him. Shylock is not an ogre, letting lose harm and disaster without reason. He is wronged first; the fact that his revenge far outweighs that initial evil is what makes him a villain.
Beneath Shylock’s villainy, the concept of evil for evil runs as a significant theme through the play. In order to understand this notion, one must examine the initial evil, aimed at Shylock, through his own eyes. Some may see the discrimination aimed at Shylock as justified because he is a malicious usurer; certainly the Venetians believe so. However, the discrimination takes its toll on Shylock until he begins to hate all Christians. Shylock sees himself as an outsider, alienated by his society (Walley).
The evils he retaliates against are namely three: hatred from Antonio, discrimination from Christian Venetians, and his daughter Jessica’s marriage to a Christian. Shylock’s main reason for making the bond is, of course, his hatred of Antonio. Antonio, a good Christian who lends without interest, constantly preaches about the sin of usury and publicly denounces Shylock for practicing it. In addition, Shylock hates Antonio for an economic, even petty reason, and remarks that “He lends out money gratis and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice” (I. iii. 44-45).
Antonio spits on him in public and calls him a “cut-throat dog. ” Shylock also recognizes Antonio’s anti-Semitism, naming him an enemy of “our sacred nation” (I. iii. 48). Antonio is incessantly trying to coerce Shylock to convert to Christianity; he even remarks on this note to Bassanio after the bond is made. Sensing this fact, Shylock’s bitterness is fueled and his hatred is further developed. Shakespearean critic D. A. Traversi finds an additional thought plaguing Shylock. Tied in with his anti-Semitism is an apparent supremacy Antonio feels over Shylock, exemplified in his ruthlessly complacent portrayal of preponderance.
I am as like to call thee so again, / To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (I. iii. 130-131). When Antonio quips, “If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not / As to thy friends; for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend? / But lend it rather to thine enemy,” he puts down Shylock as someone who can never be his friend or equal (I. iii. 132-33, 135). In addition to evil from Antonio, the Christians despise Shylock. He himself attributes his woes to the fact that “[He is] a Jew” (III. i. 58).
He says he hates Antonio because “he is a Christian” (I. i. 42) and he sees Christians as his oppressors. His thrift is condemned as miserly bloodsucking when it is just his own means of survival based on his separate standards. His own insistence on the pound of flesh becomes the direct result of renewed insult. The final insult Shylock receives at the hands of Christians is the marriage of his daughter Jessica to a Christian. Shylock is betrayed by his own flesh and blood and robbed to boot. He now takes on the dual roles of grief-stricken father and duped-miser, though it is almost entirely the latter (Walley).
Either way, Shylock is once again dealt evil by the Christians who dissociate him. While it is clear that he is an oppressed man, no reader of Shakespeare would shed a single tear for poor Shylock. The evil he returns far outweighs the measure received, even if one would judge the Christians’ discrimination by today’s standards. Some readers might even argue that Shylock deserved the suffering he got. Shylock is the villain of the play and he is far from innocent. The most outright demonstration of evil by Shylock is his insistence on the pound of flesh at the trial scene.
Shylock had been viewed in the past as evil for his miserly love of money, but now he is fixated on much more. He is willing to give up three times the loan in exchange for a pound of Antonio’s flesh. This tenacious pursuit of homicidal intentions toward Antonio is representative of Shylock’s character. He is completely devoid of mercy; that and other positive virtues are beyond his comprehension. Shylock’s personality can be characterized by blind spots and basic human limitations which make a balanced human life unattainable. The evil Shylock commits is further compounded by the helplessness of Antonio’s situation.
When one examines the signing of the bond, further duplicitous treachery on Shylock’s part becomes evident. Shylock puts Antonio in a situation where he cannot reject the apparently innocuous but potentially dangerous bond. When Antonio approaches Shylock, he asks for the money yet insists that Shylock lend it to thine enemy. This act is an implicit, unstated rebuke of usury. Shylock then pounces on this opportunity and offers a proposal that seems to act upon Antonio’s teaching, slipping in his seemingly ridiculous contingency of a pound of flesh, which Antonio never dreams could be taken seriously.
Antonio is now put into a precarious position: he must agree because to reject reformation is to nullify censure (Traversi). Further duplicity on Shylock’s part is seen in the fact that he himself acts as if he does not take the pound of flesh seriously, when he imparts to Antonio the perfectly reasonable contention, “If he should break this day, what should I gain? ” (I. iii. 163). Literary critic James E. Siemon finds further evidence of the profound evil Shylock exudes in Shakespeare’s setup of the trial scene.
By this point, it is obvious to all that Shylock is consumed with rage and will stop at nothing to have his revenge (Siemon). The trial is both a condemnation of Shylock and a hope of reform for him. The Duke, a figure of authority and supreme judgement, speaks truthfully when he calls Shylock a “stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity” (IV. i. 4-5). The audience is meant to realize here, if they do not already, that a man cannot live without the qualities of mercy and pity, and it is the lack of these traits that makes him commit evil deeds.
Siemon remarks that Portia’s plea is essentially a plea for Shylock rather than for Antonio. She is pleading with him to throw off his stony, inhuman nature and to take his place as a man among men, to acknowledge that he is a man and that all men live by mercy. The audience is meant to understand that Shylock must change his very nature in order to become a member of society. The fact that Shylock does not respond to Portia is further proof that Shylock is a complete villain (Traversi). The Merchant of Venice is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies to present a full-scale depiction of evil (Siemon).
Indeed, evil is a major theme of the play and certainly one of the most profound characteristics of Shylock. The text itself preserves enough evidence of the author’s fixed intent to exhibit his Shylock as an inhuman scoundrel, whose diabolical cunning is bent on gratifying a satanic lust for Christian flesh. The Jew, in fact, is the ogre of medieval story and the cur to be exacerbated by all honest men. He represents the tormented receiver of evil from society, the baneful villain plotting to destroy the hero, and most importantly, a man fueled by others’ maledictions to exhibit his own.