Why is Shylock a villain in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is far from certain that the character of Shylock in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice is a villain. Indeed, if Shylock is a villain, it is only because he arranges with Antonio to be paid a pound of the latter's flesh should Antonio's fortunes wane and he be unable to otherwise repay the Jewish moneylender for the loan. Shylock's insistence throughout the play that this arrangement, entered into willingly by Antonio, be enforced casts him in a particularly negative light, and the anti-Semitism prevalent in Shakespeare's play is certainly intended to depict Shylock as the villain of the story. Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia are all good, decent human beings. Shylock is the antithesis of their good and benevolent nature. To conclude, however, that Shylock is a villain is to miss the point of The Merchant of Venice. While Shakespeare's play depicts the Jewish character as venal, the playwright does not ignore the context in which Shylock acts. In fact, Shakespeare took pains to provide the background necessary to illuminate the reasons for Shylock's nature, as is evident in the following passage from Act I, Scene III in which Shylock addresses Antonio and Bassanio regarding their agreement:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Shylock has endured innumerable injustices and insults at the hands of the other characters. He is a moneylender because other reputable professions have been denied individuals of his faith. He has grown bitter, and is unrepentant with respect to his demand for a pound of Antonio's flesh as payment for the loan. Whether he is a villain, however, is entirely a matter of perspective.

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The Merchant of Venice

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