In early productions of The Merchant of Venice, actors played Shylock as either a monster or an evil clown, enforcing the idea that he is the villain of the play. In many ways he certainly seems to be the antagonist of the story: one of his primary functions is as the obstacle standing between Portia and Bassanio’s wedded bliss. He is described by other characters as obsessed with money, and a cruel father to his daughter, Jessica. Antonio and the other Christians of Venice routinely abuse Shylock, spitting on him and calling him a “cutthroat dog.” Shylock himself seems to relish his role as antagonist, saying about Antonio “I hate him for he is a Christian/… If I can catch him once upon the hip/ I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” (I.iii.) When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock is vindictive, claiming he wants Antonio’s flesh for no practical reason other than spite: “if it will feed nothing else/It will feed my revenge.” Because the play aligns its audience and readers with Portia and Bassanio, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Shylock when his desires threaten theirs.
However, when we take into account circumstances that took place before the play, as well as what happens over the course of the plot, Shylock begins to seem a like a victim as well as a villain, and his fate seems excessively harsh. In addition to the abuse Antonio and other Christians routinely subject him to, Shylock lost his beloved wife, Leah. His daughter, Jessica, runs away from home with money and jewels she’s stolen from him, including a ring Leah gave him before she died. Although Solanio reports that Shylock’s was equally upset by the loss of his money as his daughter (“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” (II. Viii.), we must remember that we are getting a second-hand view through the eyes of an anti-Semitic character who compares Shylock to the devil. As we learn from Shylock himself, the Christians of Venice are happy to borrow money from him, but refuse to accept him as part of Venetian society because they equate his religion with Satan. Shylock has been treated as less than human his whole life, because he is not a Christian. Yet when he tries to collect on a loan, the other characters insist that he act like a Christian and forgive the debt.
Evolving ideas about whether or not Shylock is sympathetic can be traced through the history of the performance itself. While early depictions focused on his obsession with money, nineteenth and twentieth century performances have portrayed the character as a victim of his circumstances and his times. One significant exception was a 1943 Nazi-sponsored production of the play which emphasized Shylock’s villainy to propagate anti-Semitism. But most post-Holocaust stagings of the play have portrayed Shylock as a human, if not entirely sympathetic, character. Writing about a 2010 production of the play starring Al Pacino as Shylock, critic Ben Brantley claimed Shylock “is neither merely the victim nor the villain of this piece; he is instead the very soul of the money-drunk society he serves and despises.” This interpretation suggests the play can be read neither as an indictment of Judaism or anti-Semitism, but rather an exploration of the corrupting effects of money on all the characters, Jewish and Christian alike.