Is Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock’s need for revenge justified due to Antonio’s anti semitic behaviour?
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is portrayed by Shakespeare as the villain because of his religion and his need of revenge over Antonio, in the form of a “pound of flesh”. Shylock is portrayed as greedy, money obsessed, nasty and vengeful. Shakespeare’s possible intention was for Shylock to be portrayed as a villain who at the same time is a victim of what would be seen by a modern audience as anti semitic views. To Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, Shylock would of been seen as the nasty and vengeful person that he intended him to be seen. From this we gain context of how the audience would react to the anti semitic views being portrayed, as it was the normal way to think of Jewish people, so the audience would of had less sympathy for Shylock.
Antonio is the protagonist and he is the contrasting character to Shylock, this makes Shylock’s behaviour seem worse. He is portrayed as a “good christian” and at the time his strong anti semitic views would of been considered normal and expected. Antonio is described as “good Antonio, gentle Antonio” this proves his kind personality towards others but not Jews such as Shylock. It is important to see that Antonio was perceived as a kind man towards others and not Shylock because it shows the true hate and loathing Antonio has for Shylock because of his religion. Shakespeare does this to emphasize that the hate Antonio emits was not just hate for a person but specifically Shylock because of his religion, it is showing that Antonio is truly anti semitic.
It can be argued that Shylock’s thirst of a grotesque revenge “if it will feed nothing else it will feed my revenge” over Antonio is indefensible because all humans should have morals, victim or not. Shakespeare’s use of “feed” makes it seem like Shylock has a biological need for revenge. Shakespeare also uses the word “feed” when Shylock is saying “I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him” this again shows that Shylock has a hungriness that he needs to feed for revenge and this ancient grudge against Antonio. Shylock’s behaviour is wrong but is is understandable and can be justified to certain lengths. In the play Shylock is treated like nothing and is essentially a foreigner in his own city, even though he may of lived in Venice all his life, this is shown by how Shakespeare differentiates Shylock from the other characters in the play by writing all that Shylock says in prose, deeming him an unimportant character, which is the opposite of the truth but the view that Shylock is unimportant is shared by the anti semitic characters of the play. Shakespeare’s stereotypical portrayal of Shylock as a villain is almost justifying the anti semitism that is occuring in the play towards Shylock, this emphasizes the use of anti semitism in the play.
At the beginning of the play Shylock tries to rise above the anti semitic remarks and insults by ignoring them or the person stating the insults may not even look Shylock in the face. Then Shylock sees a chance to seek revenge once he and Antonio make a deal with the forfeit of Antonio not paying being a “pound of his flesh”. Shylock wants revenge because he believes that Antonio hates him because of his religion “he hath disgraced me…and what is his reason? I am a Jew” in this quote Shakespeare uses rhetorical questions to subtly persuade the audience to think about how Antonio is treating Shylock but more than that, Antonio and Shylock are in the same business of money lending and because he lent money to people to help them pay their debts off to Shylock “I hate him for he is a Christian/ for that in low simplicity/ he lends out money gratis”. This shows Shylocks true hate for Antonio and his personal justification for this hate, Shylock hates Antonio not just because of his behaviour towards him but because Shylock is money obsessed, so he doesn’t want any competition to his business, from this, audiences could suggest that the business competition could either justify Shylock’s “hunger” for revenge or they could say that Antonio was justified in hating Shylock. Tp Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, Antonio would of been justified in hating Shylock as the audience would of had preconceived anti semitic views.
Another way that Shylock is shown as materialistic and money obsessed is when his daughter runs away with some of his money and he shouts “O my ducats” Shakespeare does this to make Shylock seem more villainous and greedy. Shylock claims that his suffering is caused by the Christians “what should his sufferance be by Christian example” and he blames his villainous ways on them “The villainy you teach me I will execute” Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would of been Christian. Blaming Shylock’s behaviour on their religion may of been deliberately offensive so that Shakespeare makes the villainous behavior of Shylock clear and make the audience dislike Shylock more. In the religion of Christianity, vengeance is a sin, so Shylock and his “hunger” for revenge would of been seen as sinful and wrong, especially at the time.
A running theme throughout the play is the prejudice towards Shylock, at the time the play was written, Jews were not even allowed in Britain, meaning Shakespeare’s audience would of had preempted racist and anti semitic views before they would of seen the play, Shakespeare often refers to Shylock as “the Jew” which adds to the idea that Jewish people are considered unimportant and that Shylock specifically is unimportant to the plot. For a modern audience it is much harder to accept the racist and anti semitic insults that are thrown around by various characters. Dustin Hoffman an actor said this when talking about Shylock as a character “He becomes that which he most abhors. He is torn to shreds emotionally by the society around him. He become the very thing that’s reduced him… that’s taken his humanity away”. This quote is very truthful as when forced to become a Christian, Shylock is devastated, a modern audience feels sympathy for Shylock here as Shakespeare uses emotive language “grievous penalties” with even Antonio asking the court to stop “So please my lord the Duke and all the court to quit” this sympathy from Antonio will of once again of given Shakespeare’s contemporary audience another reason to think that Antonio is a victim and that Shylock is not justified in ever needing revenge. Shylock’s mood changes so quickly with him going from ecstatic to devastated and even though he may of been excited for the slaughter of another man, the fact that he has to give up his religion makes the modern audience really empathize with him, he has become the very person whom he has despised for their insulting actions towards him.
Audiences argue whether Shylock was justified in wanting revenge over Antonio, who mistreated Shylock because he was a Jew. Shakespeare gives Shylock a speech which tries to justify Shylock’s hatred of the Christians and in turn justifying his need of revenge over Antonio. Shakespeare gives Shylock the line “hath a jew not eyes” which is essentially asking why Jews and Christians are not deemed equal if on appearance they are the same. Shakespeare gives Shylock a convincing argument, the most powerful in the play, on how he is treated differently and badly for his choice in religion by trying to evoke pathos, Shakespeare does this by using parallel structures to give comparison and contrast of Christians and Jews, Shylock expresses how he is only treated this way for what he believes in and he has only doing what he has been taught. To a contemporary audience we would sympathize with Shylock at this point in the play and defend him by stating that Antonio and much of the Christian characters in the play are anti semitic and I would argue that if the tables were turned and Antonio was being mistreated by a Jewish man like Shylock, Antonio would get immediate revenge if he wanted it.
In conclusion I personally think that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock’s need for revenge is not totally justified but Shylock’s behavior towards Antonio is understandable towards the end of the play but I do not think that Shylock is justified for his desperate need of revenge over Antonio because then he is only lowering to Antonio’s level of hate and nastiness. Overall whether Shylock was justified in seeking revenge over Antonio is a matter of perception, In a modern audiences view, Antonio is both racist and anti semitic and Shylock is constantly on the receiving end of anti semitic abuse but on the other hand we have to put The Merchant of Venice into context to the era it was written in and anti semitism was a commonly held view at the time the play was written and performed.