It is clear that Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice is ripe with anti-Semitism. Shylock, the Jew, arises as the villain, and those who speak to or refer to him often only address him as ‘Jew.’ What I wonder is whether Shylock’s role as the antagonist arises from his Jewish sensibilities as Shakespeare portrayed him, or if his determination for that “pound of man’s flesh” arose from how he is treated by those in the play (I.iii.165).
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the end, Shylock is stubborn in his demand for Antonio’s debt, yet in the beginning he had no way of knowing Antonio would lay on difficult times. Though he could wish it so, Shylock could not have predicted the shipwrecking of all Antonio’s ventures. Yet, Shylock’s obstinate demand for that pound of flesh comes after he has lost his daughter and all of the wealth she stole from him when she eloped with the Christian, Lorenzo. After the discovery of their flight, Shylock bemoans his losses, and “all the boys in Venice” mock his shows of grief (II.vii.23). Feeding on Shylock’s distress, almost every character in the play is against him.
Was Shylock born to be a villain? Was Shakespeare’s intent as anti-Semitic as it appears? I argue that the fact that Shylock is a Jew is not as important as the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Shakespeare’s Venice. Many of the characters in the Merchant of Venice express hatred towards Shylock, and Solanio and Salerio laugh and make jokes at Shylock’s expense, his own servant, Launcelot, cannot stand working for him, and Antonio warns Bassanio that “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” and refers to Shylock as “an evil soul,” “villain,” and an “apple rotten at the heart” (I.iii.98-101). Shylock lists the ill will that Antonio has expressed toward him, calling him a “cut-throat dog” and “misbeliever” (I.iii.111), and Antonio not only does not deny this, but states that he is “like to call” Shylock those names again, and “to spet” and “to spurn” him again (I.iii.130-131). Face with this hatred and distain, is it that surprising that Shylock turns villain, and seeks revenge on the man who shows him no compassion and takes away customers?
By the time of the trial, everyone in town is against Shylock, and even the Duke, while forced to uphold the law, fights with Shylock and asks for him to quit his bond and take the money. In the end, Shylock is tricked into losing everything. I argue that, though Shylock ends a villain, he does not start as so, and his zeal to kill Antonio was not born from the fact that he was Jewish, but rather a result of a series of incidents of anti-Semitism directed towards him, and the elopement of his daughter. I do not here defend what Shylock did and tried to do, but rather offer an explanation of the development of his character.