Is there a villain (yet)?

I have never read The Merchant of Venice before. My only previous knowledge is that the play includes a lot of anti-semitic undertones (or perhaps it was Shakespeare picking on social standards/beliefs, just as a previous blogger said) and that Shylock is the villain. The only appearance we get with him during Act I of the play is the encounter with Shylock, Bassanio and Antonio regarding the loan. I took notice of his dialogue and found that he doesn’t say much compared to the other characters. Shakespeare is known for writing long monologues for his characters and so far, we are not seeing that. Assuming that every detail is a conscious decision of the writer, this “less dialogue” decision could exist because Shakespeare wants to make Shylock appear as unfriendly, or mysterious.

However, I don’t find that Shylock is exceedingly cruel compared to the other characters, especially Antonio. Antonio is the one making an issue out of Shylock’s religion, and he has called him a “misbeliever, cut-throat, dog / And spit upon [his] Jewish gabardine”. Not only does Antonio acknowledge that he has said it, but he then states that he will most likely do the same again. That statement portrays recognition of an evil side of his own character—much like villains do in Shakespearean plays. I’ve noticed that in Shakespearean plays (for example: Iago in Othello), the villain characters usually share a trait in which they are aware of their evilness, and embrace it (usually in their asides). In this play, it seems that Shylock is completely oblivious to any evil nature he has, and believes that his opinions (regarding business, religion, etc.) are valid. Another trait I’ve noticed is that usually the villain (this is probably prevalent in plays that aren’t Shakespearean as well) tries to act caring, or loving, so no one will expect their betrayal/unjust action upon another character(s) later on. Shylock, as I mentioned before, doesn’t come off as incredibly harsh during his encounter regarding the loan, but he doesn’t appear to be kind or loving either. I feel like if he had a destructive plan in mind, he would act especially nice towards Bassanio and Antonio to ensure that he is someone who can be trusted.

It’s only the first act so my opinion can (and probably will) change, but during this encounter between Antonio and Shylock, Antonio seems more of a villain than Shylock does with his brutal attitude and dialogue.

Regarding the end of the scene: I have a feeling that this is where I should have perceived Shylock as a villain, but I interpreted his suggestion towards Antonio as a joke. Someone forfeiting their flesh if a loan is not paid in time seems ridiculous. Although this could be foreshadowing what is to come (it is a tragic comedy, after all).


4 thoughts on “Is there a villain (yet)?

  1. Tony Mancini

    Being a comedy about merchants, the principal characters in the play are all going to be portrayed at least with some level of villainy to parody the profession. I'd still say Antonio is the lesser of two evils here. He takes out a dangerous loan for Bassanio and his misdeeds against Shylock, while somewhat cruel, are akin to schoolyard bullying. Shylock seems the worst; he wants Antonio to be horribly injured if he doesn't pay his debt.

  2. Zan Strumfeld

    Although I do agree with most of this post, I didn't perceive Shylock's last words about taking flesh if the loan isn't paid as a joke. I took it completely seriously, and I'm sure it will show up later in texts as a more serious idea. True, I didn't get so much villain-esq ideas out of Shylock yet, but since knowing in advance that he is supposed to be the villain, we can try to look more into what he says and see it in a villain-like way.

  3. Unique_Loner69

    I know it's too early to tell, but I don't think Shylock is the villain honestly. I think he comes off as a good man so far. Antonio comes off as such an evil bastard, that I don't blame Shylock for saying those things about him. We all say things like that to our bully, so I think Shylock is just speaking now…but I could be wrong, since this is only the beginning.

  4. Shane

    Since this act is Shylock's first introduction, I feel like Shakespeare is trying to subtly work his way up to exposing Shylock as an inherently bad man. As said in the original post, he doesn't act very evil, but he doesn't act over-the-top good as well. He is pretty neutral, except for his one aside, which shows his intense hatred for Antonio.I think his word choice here is important, as he says "I hate him for he is a christian," (not because he is a bully, but simply for his religious differences) "But more, for that in low simplicity/ He lends out money gratis, and brings down/ The rate of usance here with us in Venice," (Lines 37-40) shows even stronger hatred because Antonio interferes with his money-making, which serves to characterize him as the "money-grubbing jew" (to speak in a harsh tone set up by Shakespeare).


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