The Complexities of Evil: The Evolution of Shakespearean Villains in Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice
A common trope found in most Shakespeare plays is that of using a character from a racial or ethnic minority as a villainous scapegoat. In his time, Shakespeare’s audiences would have been primarily white Christians, and thus any character in his plays who fell outside of these parameters made for an easily targeted “other”. By analyzing the plays Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare made no attempts to move away from this negative portrayal of members of minority groups, however his representation of them did improve. Shakespeare’s earliest villains such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus are two-dimensional characters who are inarguably underserving of sympathy and show virtually no signs of humanity. Later in his writing career, we see examples of far more complex villains such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who has clear motivation behind his actions, and has distinct moments of humanity which earns him audience sympathy. Though Shakespeare’s villains continued to be primarily members of minority groups who were easy targets to direct hatred towards, he made them much more complex in their motivations, humanity, and ability to be sympathized with.
In the first half of Titus Andronicus, Aaron delivers a soliloquy which allows the audience to gain a deeper understanding of his goals and motivations. Speaking his thoughts out loud, he reflects on Tamora’s rise to power as a result of her marriage to the Emperor of Rome, Saturnitus. He feels that this will benefit him greatly as he is Tamora’s secret lover, and believes that her new position will give him the power he needs to destroy Rome. Speaking outside of the Senatehouse, Aaron says of this advancement of his social status;
So Tamora. / Upon her wit doth earthly honor wait, / And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown. / Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts / To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress, / And mount her pitch whom thou in triumph long / Hast prisoner held, fettered in amorous chains / And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes / Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus. / Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts! / I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold / To wait upon this new-made emperess. / To wait, said I? To wanton with this queen, / This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph, / This siren that will charm Rome’s Saturnine / And see his shipwrack and his commonweal’s (Tit. 2.1.9-24).
Aaron’s expression of his desire to destroy Rome makes the audience aware that he will be the main villain of this play. In fact, though other characters do act in villainous ways, Aaron is truly the only villain as he is at least in part responsible for instigating and encouraging every single heinous act portrayed in the play. Moreover, though the audience is made aware that Aaron has this intense desire to bring about the downfall of an empire, they are never given any indication as to what his motivation for wanting to do this is. Thus, it appears that Aaron is evil for the sake of being evil, and his character need not be any more complex than that. Reflecting the societal attitude of the time, the implication also seems to be that Aaron’s black skin makes him inherently evil. This idea is reinforced in numerous instances throughout the play such as when Bassianus tells Tamora that her honour is; “Spotted, detested, and abominable” (Tit. 2.3.74), just like Aaron’s skin.
By contrast, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has very clear motives. Though his intention of harming Antonio is quite reprehensible, the reason behind his ill-will is at least made apparent to the audience. When Antonio comes to Shylock to ask to borrow money for Bassiano, Shylock agrees to provide the loan interest-free for three months and says;
If you repay me not on such a day, / In such a place, such sum or sums as are / Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me (MV 1.3.158-63).
Antonio agrees to these terms and thus, when he fails to be able to repay his debt, Shylock is entitled to one pound of his flesh. One might still view plotting to cut one pound of flesh off of someone’s body over a monetary debt as unjustifiably evil, however the debt is not Shylock’s only motivation. The two men are in fact enemies, and Antonio has been cruel to Shylock on numerous occasions with no remorse. Of this, Shylock says; “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine” (MV 1.3.121-22). Antonio’s justification for this hatred and abuse is that Shylock is a Jewish money-lender who charges interest on his loans, and both his religion and occupation are inexcusable in Christian society. Shylock has been frequently scorned by Antonio, and thus he sees the opportunity to take a pound of flesh as a means of getting his revenge. While the audience may not like Shylock as a character and may still feel that his intentions are reprehensible, it is apparent that he has valid motives. This makes him a far more complex character than Aaron is, as it shows he is not villainous without a cause.
In Titus Andronicus, Aaron is written with no redeemable characteristics, and no sense of humanity. He is very aware of the fact that he is evil, and he finds joy in being that fact. After tricking Titus Andronicus into sacrificing his hand, Aaron gleefully states; “O, how this villainy / Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! / Let fools do good and fair men call for grace; / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (Tit. 3.1.205-8). It is apparent here that he sees his evil as one of his best virtues, and that he believes “good” behaviours to be reserved for fools. He expresses how the thought of his villainy brings him great joy and that he aspires to have a soul as dark as his face — another reference which implies that his evil tendencies are a direct result of his race, and nothing else.
The only instance where Aaron is made out to have something with a remote resemblance to humanity is when he finds out that Tamora has birthed his illegitimate child. The Nurse reveals that Tamora has ordered the baby be killed so that her husband does not find out about her infidelity, and Demetrius volunteers to be the person to carry out his mother’s wishes. Aaron takes the baby away from the Nurse and Demetrius and says;
Sooner this sword shall plow thy bowels up! / Stay, murderous villains, will you kill your brother? / Now, by the burning tapers of the sky / That shone so brightly when this boy was got, / He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point / That touches this my firstborn son and heir. / I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus / With all his threat’ning band of Typhon’s brood, / Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war / Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands (Tit. 4.2.91-100).
Immediately following this, he kills the Nurse in order to ensure that she cannot accidentally tell anyone about the baby. He then he reveals to Chiron and Demetrius that he will bring the child to live with a poor family in the countryside in order to save his life. At first glance, this seems to be a redeeming moment for Aaron. He feels the need to protect this child — even if that means killing Demetrius who seems perfectly willing to kill the baby — when he had previously only ever been concerned about making sure his own needs and desires were met. However, this initial impression is quite misleading as Aaron really has no concern for the infant as its own being. He makes no indication that killing the baby would be cruel because it is a human deserving of life, but instead makes it clear that his desire to save the child is because it is his “flesh and blood” (Tit. 4.2.87). Aaron’s desire to save the baby’s life is still self-serving, as he wants to ensure he has a surviving son to carry on his name and legacy. This selfishness is coupled with the fact that his choice to save one life leads him to murder the Nurse in cold blood in order to ensure no one ever finds out about his heir. These two observations make it quite clear despite this moment in which Aaron seemingly exhibits some form of humanity, he is in face wholly irredeemable.
In The Merchant of Venice on the other hand, Shylock is given moments in which he is painted as a highly sympathetic character. In arguably one of the most striking moments of the play, when Salarino asks what interest he would possibly have in taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh, Shylock responds;
To bait fish withal: 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, hurt with the same weapons, subject / to the same diseases, healed by the same means, / warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as / a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? / if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison / us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not / revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will / resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, / what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian / wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by / Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you / teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I / will better the instruction (MV 3.1.52-72).
This monologue reflects many of Shylock’s frustrations, not only with Antonio, but with Venetian and European society as a whole. He lists the cruel behaviour Antonio has exhibited towards him, and highlights the fact that these cruelties are based not only on the fact that he is a money lender, but primarily on the fact that he is a Jew. By saying that a Jew has eyes, organs, feelings, and all the same needs as any other person — namely Christians — he draws attention to his humanity. This destroys the audience’s ability to see him as an “other”, and forces them to see him as a person, like them in many ways. Shakespeare takes this one step further, and writes Shylock’s monologue in a way that draws comparisons between Christians and Jews. Shylock explains that if Jews and Christans are the same in all physical aspects of humanity, then it follows that they are similar in the psychological and emotional aspects of humanity. Thus, if it is permissible for a Christian to seek revenge upon a Jew who wronged him, it is as permissible for a Jew to seek revenge upon a Christian who wronged him. These physical and psychological parallels would have forced a primarily Christian audience to look at the Jewish villain and acknowledge that they shared many similarities. While this humanization of Shylock may be interpreted as Shakespeare calling into question societal views of Jews at the time this play was written, it is improbable that that was his intention. Given the overarching anti-Semitic themes in The Merchant of Venice, it seems far more likely that Shakespeare was trying to create more complex, relatable villains which would cause unrest in his audience. Though he still paints an ethnic minority as the villain in this play, he writes him as far more complex, relatable, and redeemable than had written Aaron in Titus Andronicus.
Over the course of his career, Shakespeare learned to write villains who demonstrate complexity in their motivations, humanity, and sympathetic qualities. In Titus Andronicus, Aaron is evil for the sake of being evil and is reprehensible in every aspect of his overly-simplistic being. He looks out only for his own selfish interests and is consumed entirely by his desire to cause harm. Later on, we see complexity of character such as that demonstrated by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who has clear motivations behind his actions and has moments in which he is shown to be deeply human. Still, it is unlikely that Shakespeare was attempting to challenge societal attitudes by humanizing these characters as these later works are still littered with Eurocentric racism. Despite the fact that he still opted to paint his minority characters as evil, he learned that even the most evil characters can have thoughts and desires that stretch beyond villainy. Through this realization and the development of complex villains, Shakespeare drastically improved his writing and overall unfolding of the plot of his plays.
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