I have spent a lot of time on trying to understand Shylock. He isn't perfect, but the insight into the mind of Shylock which Shakespeare provides allows me to see a depth of character which represents something more than just a two-dimensional villain. This adds texture to the play and I always assumed that it reflected an "anti-anti-semitism" in Shakespeare's worldview (though possibly it was just part of an "anti-all religion so Judaism isn't any more bad than anything else). The more I think about it, the more I realize that this might have been only one part of Shakespeare's intention.
I have been running through the admittedly small sample of Shakespeare's plays which I have read and it seems to me that Will S. is working hard to create characters and relationships which are realistic -- not necessarily in how they talk, but in how they think. His genius lies in the fact that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, he refused to present good guys and bad guys. His villains were relatable and even justifiable and his heroes were deeply flawed and sometimes not so heroic.
I don't know if there have been books written on this. Probably. If I were to go to good ol' Google and ask about "Shakespeare's villains" I would probably see a list of scholarly books dating back 350 years saying all the things I am about to say. So I will take the safer course and just not look. I can say with all honesty and sincerity that what you are reading is the child of my brain, speaking as one who intentionally did not read anything about this subject (not so I can flout my ignorance, only so I can boast of my independent genius). And if you ever thought of this stuff before me, I'm suing.
If I look into the various plays, I see a series of villains who make sense to me. Granted, this entire piece of writing could be a scathing indictment of my own sociopathy but I'd like to ignore that the way I usually ignore the emotions of other people. So here is a quick review:
Merchant of Venice -- as stated elsewhere, Shylock is not wrong. There is a history of abuse at the hands of the "heroes," his daughter is seduced away fro him and his family (and spends his money which she has stolen), and the legal system is manipulated by an impostor to victimize him. He is given stage time during which he represents the righteousness of his position and his arguments are never refuted.
Othello -- Iago is not wrong. Cassio is inexperienced and does not have the practical skill and sharp mind to see through Iago's plans, let alone to lead an army. Iago, this paradigm of unredemptive evil, is also right about Othello. The Moor is weak and manipulatable. Iago SHOULD be in charge of the army. And the possibility that Othello slept with Iago's wife is a reasonable motive and is easy to believe.
Macbeth -- I'm not even sure who the villain is here! Macbeth, himself, is a puppet -- a tool who has aspirations tempered by cowardice. He doesn't want to be bad and is spurred on by a prophecy he doesn't ask for. His wife, promised things by her husband before the play begins, is just doing her part to get what she deserves, and what the witches have predicted. She loved her father, loves her husband and has a guilty conscience -- not exactly the attributes of an unmitigated villain. Hans Gruber never regrets anything and is never troubled by what has to be done.
Hamlet -- a play without a villain. Sure, if you believe a spirit, Claudius killed Old King Hamlet, but Claudius feels bad about it, and only lashes out at young Hamlet once he feels threatened. And Hamlet? As heroes go, he tries not to (and he also recognizes that there is some confusion about being the bad guy when he asks "Who calls me villain?" He doesn't say "a villain calls me villain." He doesn't know what to consider his uncle). He is mean, narcissistic (eventually rash) and insane.
King Lear -- does anybody really feel sorry for Lear? He is a fool and his kids (whom HE raised, so whose fault is that?) don't want to put up with his garbage. So Goneril and Regan act reasonably when they boot him out. Cordelia is not much of a hero -- but she is, and in the innocent portrayal, Shakespeare shows that a naive hero is unrealistic and can't survive.
Julius Caesar -- OK, I haven't read it since 1982, and even then I didn't read it, but if I recall correctly, the murderers have reasons. Shakespeare doesn't just present bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad. He gives them back stories and rationales.
I haven't read the histories -- if you have, feel free to comment about the baddies therein and let me know if their portrayal supports my thesis. As for the other comedies, I have read a couple (though my passing familiarity with Twelfth Night, Love's Labors Lost and A Comedy of Errors doesn't trigger any sense that there is clear and unmitigated villainy afoot in them). In Midsummer's Night, I barely see a plot, let alone a bad guy, but if I had to hang out with one character, it would be Puck. As for Measure for Measure, I see a whole lot of nasty people in a nasty society. I see lying, cheating and other deadly sins but no villains. And the punishment is marriage. Romeo and Juliet? [I know, not a comedy] Who is bad in this play? Both houses deserve a pox. Both young lovers are foolish. Both sets of parents should have been reported to DYFS a long time ago. No villains.
I'm not saying that I like the villains. I just see them as something more than antagonists or foils for the supposed good guy. Literature has examples of clear cut nasties. Look at the Emperor in the Star Wars series. Or watch Enter the Dragon. Until we read about Elphaba in Wicked, the Wicked Witch was pretty obviously evil. Fairy tales have heroic princes and horrible bad guys. Shakespeare doesn't do this and if we want to appreciate the complexity of his stories, we should do that by recognizing that he populates his stories with people, not characters.
Maybe now I will go look around and see how many websites and books make this same argument, but better. Probably not though.