Yesterday, the first volume of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision came out. The first volume was called “Little Worse Than A Man.” The second volume will be called “Little Better Than A Beast.” This is a quote from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
How like you the young German, the Duke of Saxony’s nephew?
Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk: when he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast: and the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall make shift to go without him.
She is referring to one of her suitors who does not play much of a role in the actual play. But Portia herself does play a role — and, in fact, a role that is pretty controversial. While Shylock the Jew is fully within his rights to collect on his debt, Portia disguises herself as a judge and tricks him and, in fact, forces him to convert to Christianity.
In The Vision, the Vision’s son Vin in obsessed with The Merchant of Venice. In the eighth issue, Victor Mancha (Vin’s “uncle”) even comments on the fact that he sees way too much of himself in the play; specifically, the character of Shylock, the Jew who has been insulted and shamed and called names until he becomes what all the other characters originally thought of him: a villain.
The fifth issue of The Vision is, in fact, called “The Villainy You Teach Me,” named after one of Shylock’s most memorable speeches:
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,
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 villainy you teach me, I will execute,
and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Shylock is speaking of Antonio, the titular “Merchant of Venice,” who backed up the loan that Shylock gave out to Bassanio. Antonio, however, has always hounded Shylock with antisemitic statements.
The Merchant of Venice is not technically one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Nobody, in fact, dies. The solution comes about due to cross-dressing. But from the perspective of Shylock, it is definitely a tragedy. And The Vision is a Shakespearean tragedy as well, complete with sympathetic villains and misunderstandings leading to murder.
The more the Visions try to create normalcy, the more they fail, because the world will not let them be normal. Shylock will forever be a Jew, subject to mockery; the Visions will forever be “socket lovers,” a false family, frauds as the Grim Reaper called them. This is why Vin obsesses over The Merchant of Venice — here is something that speaks to him. If you prick him, does he not bleed? (Probably not.)
The Marvel Universe was, in fact, built on Shakespeare. While DC Comics was busy with Batman and Superman, two titans who could do no wrong, Marvel was creating flawed, introspective heroes who fought each other almost as much as they fought bad guys (sometimes more).
The first superheroes that Marvel introduced, the ones that kicked off the superhero craze of the ‘60s, in fact, were the Fantastic Four, a family that could hardly even be called “superheroes.” They had no secret identities, they did not fight crime, and they bickered with each other, especially the cynical Ben Grimm, the Thing. Always on the verge of leaving due to people’s reaction to his appearance, his story was always the most tragic, the most Shakespearean. They even gave the stories Shakespearean names: “Lo! There Shall Be an Ending!,” “This Man... This Monster!,” “If This Be Doomsday!” and so on.
Spider-Man, too, took on the appearance of a tragedy; a guilt-driven young man fighting against a never-ending parade of mobsters and supervillains, always about to give up his life as a superhero before reflecting on the great weight of responsibility. When they brought Captain America back, they even gave him a tragedy to reflect on, the death of a friend and partner.
The Vision, too, was a tragic figure: a robot created to destroy, but who rebelled against his creator. He yearned for that which he could never be: to be human.
It is the nature of tragedy that that which we yearn for the most is dangled in front of us only to be snatched away. The normalcy and humanity that Vision wanted was so close, only to be taken away by machinations beyond his control.
What else can he do, though, except try again?
This time, however, instead of choosing the truth (that he and his family can never be normal), he chooses the lie. He lies to the police, to the Avengers. He has learned from his years among humans what would happen if the truth were told: he has learned “the villainy you teach me.” So he goes the other direction.
Each direction ends in tragedy, however. There is no escaping it. Shylock pays for his insistence on revenge in the end — he rejected the “quality of mercy” that Portia asked for, but did she offer him the same mercy? No. She forced him to convert to Christianity. He was lost either way. The arc of the universe does not bend towards justice or at least not the justice that Shylock wanted. And it will not bend towards the Vision either.
Of course, it’s not just the Vision that is trapped in a tragedy. It’s the entire Marvel universe, as pointed out in Gwenpool #3, by Christopher Hastings and Gurihiru:
It’s rarely said, but Batroc is right: in the Marvel universe, there is no meaningful victories, no meaning change. The X-Men are still hated and fear (and still on the verge of extinction), Daredevil still struggles with his secrets and his guilt, Spider-Man with his pull between familial obligations and crime fighting, and so on.
The Vision still tries to be human. And when that fails, he sweeps the broken bodies under the rug and tries to pretend that everything is normal. But that will only last so long, until the moment when that illusion of normalcy breaks.
And then we will see the villainy that you teach me.