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Essay: Hero or Villain? Explore Antonio and Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice

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In Shakespeare’s Play “The Merchant of Venice,” written in 1596, during Shakespeare play he portrays that Antonio is considered as the main hero of the play because of his willingly kinded character, while Shylock is identified as the villain of the play more so because of his culture. Stated in the Merriam Webster Dictionary a hero as “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or [for his] fine qualities” and the Random House Dictionary defines a villain as “a character in a play, novel or the like who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”. Using these definitions as a guideline to discover who would classify as the hero or the villian it is quite obvious that Antonio plays the hero and Shylock plays the villain, although they both show traits that could defer otherwise.

Excluding the early part of Act 1, Scene 1 where Antonio is represented as a very saddened individual, otherwise Shakespeare presents the reader with an individual who is selfless, loyal and heroic . When Bassanio, a long-time friend of Antonio, appears in Scene, it is revealed that he is undergoing a bankrupt spendthrift. “I have disabled mine estate” (1,1, 123) and that he is deeply in debt to Antonio already and cannot pay him. “I owe you much and (like a wilful youth) that which I owe is lost.” (1,1,146-7). In spite of Bassanio’s poor management of his personal finances, he asks Antonio to advance him another loan, this time for 3000 ducats, to pursue the wealthy Portia’s hand in marriage. Antonio’s response is heroic: most people would have refused to advance any further money, friend or not. In fact, Antonio does not have the cash available to help his friend, but he is determined to come to his aid. He goes to the Jewish moneylender, Shylock and secures the loan at a terrible personal risk. If he cannot repay the debt at the end of the three months, he will die. Shylock’s terms are “If you repay me not on such a day,…..let the forfeit be nominated for an equal pound of your fair flesh” (1,3, 143-6). Antonio, a successful Venetian merchant, had a number of ships bringing goods from numerous places back to Venice where they could be sold. However, when the debt to Shylock became due, Antonio ships had not returned and were believed to be lost. Antonio is summoned to court and calmly and heroically accepts his fate.

Your Grace hath ta’en great pains to qualify,
His rigorous course; but since he stands obdurate,
And that no lawful means can carry
Out of his lawful reach.I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am arm’d
To suffer with a quietness of spirit
The very tyranny and rage of his. (4,1, 7-13)

When we are first introduced to Shylock in Act 1, Scene 3 he is presented as a shrewd merchant, but a bitter and vindictive man: a villain in the making. Of Antonio he says, “How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian….If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed the ancient grudge I bear him” (1,3, 37-43). After advancing the 3000 ducat loan to Antonio and hearing the rumours that Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, he shows no compassion and is almost delighted when he says:

There I have another bad match: a bankrupt,
A prodigal, who dares show his head on the Rialto;
A beggar, that used to come so smug upon the
Mart. Let him look to his bond! (3,1,40-3)

When Salerio remarks to Shylock taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh won’t accomplish anything, Shylock replies, “To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge” (3,1,49-50). Later in the same speech he continues, “the villany you teach me I will execute.” (3,1,66-7). While Antonio in gaol awaiting trial, Shylock speaks to the gaoler and says, “Gaoler, look to him: tell me not of mercy; This is the fool that lent out money gratis” (3,3,1-2). There is apparently, no mercy in Shylock’s own heart. This is further shown at the trial when he is offered three times the amount of loan and he refuses saying, “An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven;Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?” (4,1, 226-7). His villainy is shown full-blown when the judgement against Antonio comes down and Shylock speaks triumphantly, “O noble judge, O excellent young man” (4.1,243).

There some passages in the play which indicate that Antonio is not always the hero nor is Shylock always the villain. When Antonio and Bassanio are speaking with Shylock to negotiate the loan, Shylock reveals a cruel and vicious side to Antonio:

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my money and my usances:
….You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine.(1,3,103-8)

Even after Shylock has agreed to loan the money to Antonio, in spite of their turbulent relationship in the past, Antonio makes it plain he will not be more compassionate or understanding in the future. He says, “ I am like to call thee so again, To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (4,3,126-7) To some extent, Antonio is to blame for Shylock demanding a pound of flesh as security for the loan. Before Antonio made these statements nothing was mentioned about harsh penalties for non-payment. As the case finishes in the Duke’s court, Antonio continues to torture Shylock, in spite of the fact that he did not have to pay back any of the loan or suffer the consequences of the unpaid debt. After the Duke has passed judgement on Shylock, Antonio further humiliates him by making him convert to Christianity and deciding what will happen to his estate:

He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possess’d,
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter(4,1.385-9)

There are less incidents in the play where Shylock appears to closer to a hero than a villain. The first notable one is during the negotiations for the loan. In spite of the cruel remarks that Antonio directs toward him, Shylock at one point says,

I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stain’d me with
Supply your present wants, and take no doit (1,3,134-6)

After the loan is set up Antonio seems to notice that in spite of all the friction between himself and Shylock, there a softer side to the money lender: “Hie thee, gentle Jew. The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.”(1,3.174-5). It is small praise for Shylock, however, because, contained in the compliment offered, is yet another dig at Shylock’s faith.

In summary, there can be no argument that Antonio is clearly the hero of the play, while Shylock definitely is the villain. It is also apparent that both characters show traits of their opponent in the play: thus at times Antonio acts like a villain and Shylock acts like a hero.

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