• kewal sethi

the real villain

who is the real vilain

this was an english project for a fourteen year old student "who is the real villain in shakespeare's drama 'the merchant of venice'". now if the word 'real' was not there, ninety eight percent would say shylock. the remaining two percent will say 'who is or was shakespeare?' but this crucial word rules out shylock. the choice is now wide open. of course you could say it was shakespeare. he has made life difficult for so mnay students of english all through these centuries. god knows whether he was playing to the gallery or the galleys (which were quite in use in those days). you could perhaps walk through the door or made to walk the plank. but then his villainess extends far beyond this drama and extended over sixty or so plays he has written, each more tortourous for the student than the others. so for a particular drama we can leave him out.

perhaps the idea was to test if you had read the drama and not merely its title. so the project became a contest for naming the players in the drama. it could not be portia – the girl with beauty and brain; nor nerissa and not even jessica (even though she stole money from her father) since that was the age of chivalry and no woman could be a villain (or vampire) , not even lady macbeth. so we have to search for the villain amongst the boys. who all are there? antonio (who is always abusing shylock), bassanio (who endangers his friend's life to win his love), lorenzo (who steals another person's daughter and is also not averse to taking his money). all of them play their part – not vey moralistic and yet they have their values also in hand. antonio is ready to help his friend even when he does not have the means to do so, bassanio rushes and offers thrice the amount of loan (though the money belongs to his would be wife), lorenzo ( a lover cannot be a villain according to the norms in that age). one cannot take notice of minor chracters whether it s prince of morroco, or arragon, launcelot, or gratiano. so who is left?

on going thoriugh the whole drama, i settled on duke of venice. let me explain. he is the judge. the judge is supposed to be honest, fair, unbiased. is he? he makes his appearance for the first time in act 4, scene 1. and his opening dialogue is

I am sorry for thee: thou art come to answer

A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch

uncapable of pity, void and empty

From any dram of mercy.

so much for the expectation of fair play from him. calling one party as inhuman wretch is not the appraoch with open mind. he addresses the plaintiff thus –

the world thinks, and I think so too,

That thou but lead'st this fashion of thy malice

To the last hour of act; and then 'tis thought

Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange

Than is thy strange apparent cruelty;

And where thou now exact'st the penalty,

Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh,

Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,

But, touch'd with human gentleness and love,

Forgive a moiety of the principal;

Glancing an eye of pity on his losses,

cruelty, he recognises (and indeed it is cruelty). pleads for the defendant. calls him 'poor merchant'. is he the judge or the cousel for the defendant?

he waits for the counsel saying

Upon my power I may dismiss this court,

Unless Bellario, a learned doctor,

Whom I have sent for to determine this,

Come here to-day.

it is clear that he had sent for bellarion, not antonio or bassanio. this is also expressed in the letter of ballarion which says' Your grace shall understand that at the receipt of your letter I am very sick:' the judge is arranging for the defence. what justice you can expect from such a court and such a judge. it is quite clear that if portia does not invent an excuse, the judge shall.

in the presence of the duke, the judge, shylock is called ' damn'd, inexecrable dog' currish and all other names by gratiano. but the judge does not interfere or rebuke the offender.

but these are minor points. the main point arises when portia turns the table on shylock and says that no blood be taken but only only the flesh. the jew is cornered and then comes out the full villainousness of duke. till now he is pleading for mercy and kindness and what not but once he has the upper hand, the tone changes. he still talks of mercy but the quality of mercy has changed. he says

That thou shalt see the difference of our spirits

I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it:

For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's;

The other half comes to the general state,

Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.

what a merciful depostion. when antonio says

I am content; so he will let me have

The other half in use, to render it,

Upon his death, unto the gentleman

That lately stole his daughter:

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.

the dule readilily agrees. not only that he even says

He shall do this, or else I do recant

The pardon that I late pronounced here

the pardon is just the ruse to deprive him of his religion and his property. the mercy shown is really the limit of cruelty.

now the question arises why this fine. the argument advanced is that he tried to take the life of a citizen. did they not know about it before portia invents the absence of mention of blood in the bond. even antonio tells the duke in so many words the intention of the jew saying (just before the arrival of nerissa as messenger of portia)

I am a tainted wether of the flock,

Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit

Drops earliest to the ground; and so let me

so everyone know, it means death, taking the life of a citizen. could the law not be applied then or was the duke ignorant of that law. what a judge?

so will you be shocked if i called him the real villain of the play. all evidence points to that. i rest my case.

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