The Conflict between Shylock and Antonio

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Shylock’s first words in The Merchant of Venice show that he is counting money to lend it to Antonio. Despite the grudge between Shylock and Antonio, he agrees to discuss a loan provided that the payback is guaranteed. Antonio guarantees the payback with a pound of his flesh. What brings the two characters to a deal when they both dislike each other?

The photo shows a book with  Shakespeare written on its cover, on vintage background viewed through a magnifying glass.
Shylock and Antonio have conflict over money and religion from the beginning to the end of the play, yet Shylock is not a typical Jew. (Image: JasaShmasa/Shutterstock)

Shylock and Antonio do not particularly like and respect each other, and much of it is due to Shylock’s beliefs and assumptions. He reveals his hatred to Antonio in an aside in the play:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice
.

If I can catch him once 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! (I.iii.37–47)

So, Christianity is the first reason for Shylock’s hatred toward Antonio. The second reason is that he lends out money with no profit and hurts Shylock’s business. There is a third reason, as well.

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A photograph of Henry Irving as Shylock in a late 19th century performance of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'.
Shylock agrees to lend money to help Antonio in wooing Portia and marrying her, on the account of Bassanio and the ships that he has on the way. (Image: Lock & Whitfield (photographer) / CC BY-SA/Public domain)

Antonio’s Behavior

Shylock reveals that Antonio has constantly mistreated him, disrespected him, called him a “misbeliever, cut-throat dog,” and even spat upon his “Jewish gabardine.” This is where Shakespeare’s Jewish character begins to diverge from the Jewish stereotypes of his time. Naturally, in return for all this hatred and disrespect, Shylock also reacts disrespectfully.

Despite the bad behavior, Shylock agrees to the loan. At the same time, his tendency for vengeance brings up a condition where Antonio has to agree that in case he cannot pay back on time, Shylock can get a pound of his flesh, “to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me.”

Antonio agrees as his money is somewhere on the ocean, and he believes his ships will come back in time with “thrice three times the value of this bond.”

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Bond in The Merchant of Venice

Despite what Antonio believes, his ships sink, and when the due date of his loan comes, he has no money to pay it back. Shylock has no mercy, and as his character remains the same all throughout the play, he insists on vengeance and justice as strongly as he did at the beginning.

Another strong reason for his urge for vengeance is that his daughter ran away with much of his wealth after falling in love with a friend of Bassanio’s–a Christian man called Lorenzo. Shylock wants revenge from all “Christian husbands.” He even conflates the loss of money with the loss of his daughter, crying, “O my ducats! O my daughter!” interchangeably in his anguish.

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The Comic Villain

In Shylock’s first words, he also reveals that he evaluates people’s worth with money. He is a typical “comic villain,” who wants to block the young love of his daughter and Lorenzo, is isolated, and keeps tight hold of his money. These are the stereotypical Jewish characters of Shakespeare’s time. And Shylock wants what he is promised and what he deserves.

Photograph shows an ancient ship on the sea.
Antonio counts on his ships to come back and bring three times the money he owes Shylock, but the ships sink. (Image: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

After his daughter runs away and he hears the news of Antonio’s ships sinking, his most famous speech confirms his urge for vengeance. He runs into two of Antonio’s friends in the street, and after they mock him, they ask what good such a deal brings him. He responds that Antonio has disrespected him and:

“If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, … as a Christian is?”

He then further points out similarities and asks why wanting vengeance is okay for a Christian but weird for a Jew.

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Antonio Winning the Conflict

Despite Shylock’s efforts for vengeance, he is finally forced to give all his money to Antonio and his daughter, and he cannot get the one pound of flesh. At the very end, Antonio forces him to convert to Christianity with a threat on his life.

Even though Shylock is the villain of a comedy play in the 16th century, he does not fully comply with the Jewish stereotypes of the time. This is what makes him such a strong and different character.

Common Questions about Shylock and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice

Q: What is Shylock’s problem with Antonio?

Shylock and Antonio encounter each other more than a few times in the play, and once Shylock reveals why he hates Antonio: he is a Christian and he “lends out money gratis and brings down
the rate of usance here with us in Venice.”

Q: What does Shylock think about Antonio hating him?

A big loan connects Shylock and Antonio, even though Shylock thinks Antonio hates and disrespects him because Shylock is a Jew.

Q: Why does Antonio borrow money from Shylock?

The transfer of money between Shylock and Antonio is for Bassanio’s sake. He wants to impress and marry Portia, and he needs to be rich for that. So, Antonio borrows the money from Shylock.

Q: What is Shylock’s condition for lending money to Antonio?

As Shylock and Antonio have hard feelings against each other, Shylock agrees with the loan under one condition: if Antonio fails to pay back on time, Shylock can get a pound of his flesh, from wherever he pleases.

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