On a surface reading of the play, Shylock would appear to be every inch the villain. He is churlish, mean-spirited, obsessed with money matters, and frowns upon the gaiety of others. He even manages to wholly alienate his own daughter, at one point drawing from her the unequivocal statement that ‘Our house is hell’ (II.iii.2) and spurs her into marrying against his will and outside his faith.
However, it is with his vengeful pursuit of Antonio that Shylock appears to cement his role as villain. At the trial, when Portia makes her famous speech on the virtue of mercy (IV.i.179-200) he flatly refuses to show any. In this he appears inhumanly and indeed quite irrationally stubborn, determined to inflict suffering on another person even when offered money to retract his cruel demand. The Duke’s description of him as ‘as stony adversary, an unhuman wretch’ (IV.i.4) would seem quite apt.
Shylock offers a reason for his stubbornness over this demand: his ‘lodg’d hate’ of Antonio (IV.i.60). Antonio is a bitter business rival of his, and we have seen the two sparring and trading insults earlier in the play. Antonio, although he is meant to be a gracious and magnaminous character, shows himself quite capable of descending to petty abuse when it comes to Shylock. There is also the difference of religion between them; Antonio is Christian, Shylock a Jew.
Shylock makes his reasons for hating Antonio quite explicit:
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more, for in that low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rates of usance here in Venice.
If I can catch him upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails
Even there where merchants most do congregate
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe
If I forgive him!
Shylock therefore gives a mixture of personal, business and religious reasons for his hatred of Antonio. Taking all this into account, it is perhaps less surprising that he should refuse to let Antonio go when he has him in his grasp.
Shylock is undoubtedly an unpleasant character but he is set apart from the other characters in the play because of his race and religion and becomes an easy target for them. Indeed, we may wonder just how much of his own hard nature is due to the prejudices that he has always had to put up with. At one point in the play, he makes his own appeal, on behalf of his race:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
Shylock is villainous and vengeful, but he has some reason; and his supposedly superior Christian enemies are not always shown in a particularly flattering light either. Shylock is not be wholly blamed for his stubborn behaviour.