The question of whether to see Shylock as a villain or a victim has come up frequently in these blog posts as well as during class. The cases are clear: Shylock would say he is a man who has suffered endless ridicule and torment, constantly treated as a second class citizen due mostly to his being a Jew – a classic example of the victim of oppression. The opposing case looks primarily at the actions of Shylock when dealing with Antonio. From this perspective, he’s a man almost entirely without mercy, and thirsty for revenge above all else. Both sides having their strengths, I don’t see these two things as being mutually exclusive.
What I see in Shylock is the epitome of a man driven to his current ruthless state. He’s the criminal who suffered through an abusive childhood, or the shooter driven to commit crimes he would find repulsive in his sober state. It’s key here that Shylock is most likely not in his normal state of mind, and may be by modern standards eligible for commitment to a mental institution. Shylock finds Antonio before his eyes, in shackles, begging for him to hear his plea, and he responds with the frighteningly cold lines,
“I’ll have my bond. I will not hear thee speak.
I’ll have my bond, and therefore speak no more.
I’ll not be made a soft and dull-eyed fool
To shake the head, relent, and sigh, and yield
To Christian intercessors. Follow not.
I’ll have no speaking. I’ll have my bond.” (3.3 12-17)
What exactly has Antonio done to Shylock to warrant such treatment? He has spoken badly of him in the past, and he loans money to people gratis, which is bad for Shylock’s business. Clearly there is more at stake here for Shylock. The repetitive, hypnotic tone of Shylock’s voice is that of a maniac – someone with a one track mind whose course has turned toward the satisfying vengeance of all the wrong doing that has been done to him. Antonio is the scapegoat of a man who has finally been pushed over the edge, the “last straw” perhaps being the current situation with his daughter, Jessica.
Essentially, I don’t think the question of whether or not Shylock ought to be sympathized with or villianized needs to be answered, and it very well may not be able to be answered. Like many cruel people throughout history, Shylock is a complex character who falls somewhere in the gray area between victim and evil incarnate. Unfortunately, we don’t get much context for the events in the play. All we really know of Shylock’s past is that he’s been ridiculed by Antonio. In fact, this play is full of characters with moral faults, though none are so clearly shown as Shylock’s. If Shakespeare’s intent was to portray Shylock as a villain, or more absurdly, if Shylock was meant to show the inherent bad character and evil of the common Jew, surely his victims would be more innocent than Antonio, and surely the mistreatment of Shylock and his current familial torment would not have been included.