Shakespeare & Sympathy

The Merchant of Venice written by William Shakespeare is a tragedy that had me questioning why some characters earn a reader’s sympathy while others do not? In this case why readers heavily sympathize with Shylock and not Antonio. Throughout the play readers, including myself, are heavily encouraged to sympathize with Shylock yet despise Antonio even though both characters suffer misfortunes. Why does Shylock earn our sympathy while Antonio does not? The answer to this question in one sense is obvious, because Antonio has shown his antisemitic views several times throughout the play. For example, spitting in Shylock’s face for no apparent reason. But looking beyond Antonio’s antisemitism I discovered another point of view on why we sympathize with Shylock and not Antonio.

On further thinking about Antonio’s character, I realized that if the court had gone another way he would have died and yet I did not care. I was still focused on sympathizing with Shylock because his daughter had stolen his money and Antonio did not pay his debt. During these times I was hoping that Shylock would get justice.  These feelings stood out to me because Antonio was going to die and yet I only felt bad for Shylock even though his misfortunes were less severe than death. This led me to question why I did not feel even the slightest bit sorry for Antonio when he was going to die? And further how writers make readers sympathize with some characters while hating other characters? I think that the portrayal of the characters’ emotions influences how the reader feels towards them. For instance, Antonio is portrayed as a character who is wallowing in self-pity throughout the whole play. An example of this is when Antonio is speaking to Solanio and he states that

“Well, jailer on. Pray God Bassanio come To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (III.iii.35-36).

All Antonio cares about is Bassanio coming to see him and not his own death. And this is the reason why I felt no sympathy for Antonio. His feeling sorry for himself and only caring about his love for Bassanio is an unattractive personal quality. His own indifference on whether he dies or not also rubs off on the reader. In comparison the portrayal of Shylock’s intense emotions is what makes me sympathize with him. These emotions can be seen during his speech

“fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject with 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?” (III.i.54-59).

The words said in this speech show Shylock’s passion and anger. His intense emotions and his want for justice are qualities that make the reader sympathize with him. Similarly, to Antonio’s indifference rubbing off on the reader, Shylock’s want for justice, pure anger and hurt makes the reader want justice for Shylock. It’s interesting to note that how characters feel about themselves the reader also feels. As well as how stronger emotions resonate more with the reader than lesser emotions.  From these examples I learned that how a reader feels about characters is not solely based on the nature of their actions but also the emotions of the characters.  The reason Shylock earns the sympathy of the reader while Antonio does not is because of the portrayal of the his emotions.