- Antonio (Merchant of Venice)
Antonio is the title character in
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He is a middle-aged bachelor and merchant by trade who has his financial interests tied up in overseas shipments when the play begins. He is loved and revered by all the Christians who know him. Even Portia, who sees Antonio as a rival for her husband’s affections, reveres his character and appreciates—with reservations of course—his willingness to die for Bassanio (Rosenfield 37). While Antonio was certainly a good friend, however unwise in his generosity he might be, he is certainly an anti-Semite. Antonio manifests his piety by cursing and spitting at Shylock. For many among us now, that is at least an irony, but clearly it was not irony for Shakespeare’s audiences (Bloom 172). The hatred of Jews was common in Europe. This duality in the character makes it difficult for Antonio to be the typical hero normally found in storytelling.
Highlights of Antonio’s scenes
Act IWhen we first see him commiserating with his friends Solano and Salerio he is pondering the unknown source of his depressive state:
"In sooth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, where of it is born, I am to learn And such a want-wit sadness makes of me That I have much ado to know myself." (MOV 1.1.1-7)
His friends try to guess the origin and nature of his condition by questioning him. First they inquire as to whether or not he is worried about his investments. When he insists that is not the reason they ask if he is in love which he is also quick to dismiss. It is then speculated that perhaps he has a strange temperament as some people do. This pair quickly exits to make way for Bassanio who is accompanied by his friends Lorenzo and Gratiano. Lorenzo cannot get in a word for the boisterous Gratiano who makes sport of Antonio’s melancholy telling him that he is too serious and that he himself would rather go through life acting foolish. After Lorenzo and Gratiano leave Bassanio tries to put Antonio at ease by saying Gratiano talks a lot of nonsense. It is in this conversation that we find a possible reason for Antonio’s sadness, the impending loss of his friend (or some suspect lover) to a woman’s affections.
"Antonio: Well, tell me now, what lady is the same To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage That you today promised to tell me of?" (MOV 1.1.119-121)
Bassanio then proceeds to tell Antonio of his depleted financial state due to his own excesses, making sure to note that he is aware he already owes him money. He laments his ill fortune but cheers at the thought of solving his problems by marrying Portia, a woman who has come into a sizeable inheritance from her father and whom he thinks is predisposed to choose him. He compares himself with Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. He beseeches Antonio to back this venture knowing he is not likely to be refused by his generous benefactor. Indeed Antonio, despite the fact that his capital is already at risk elsewhere, gives him a letter of credit and wishes him well.
Later Antonio enters the ghetto to assure Shylock that he will be bound for the 3,000 ducats Bassanio wishes to borrow. It is in this scene that we first discover Antonio’s anti-Semitism and Shylock’s grudge against him. Antonio has belittled and harassed Shylock in public. He also loathes him because when Christian friends of his owed money to the Jews he paid the debts off thus depriving them of their interest. It is ironic that someone so opposed to usury is willing to participate in it, but Antonio acknowledges it is out of character for him to do so. This willingness to subjugate his own religious and moral beliefs to assist Bassanio speaks volumes about their relationship and certainly about Antonio’s feelings for him. Far from lamenting his ill treatment of the Jew who accuses him of spitting on him and calling him a dog Antonio replies resolutely “I am as like to call thee so again, /To spet on thee again, to spurn thee.” (MOV 1.3.127-128) Knowing Shylock to be his enemy despite his pretty words to the contrary he foolishly agrees to pay with a pound of flesh if he forfeits the bond in lieu of the usual interest. It is likely arrogance that affects his judgment as he believes he has plenty of money coming in to pay it since his ships are due back a month before the contract’s expiration. Act 2
Antonio makes a brief appearance in this act in scene 6 when he runs into Gratiano and tells him he has twenty people out looking for him. He goes on to say there will be no masque and that Bassanio is at that moment preparing to leave for Belmont to woo Portia.
We hear no more from Antonio until after Bassanio wins the hand of the wealthy Portia by correctly guessing which of three caskets holds her portrait. Gratiano proposes to Nerissa, Portia’s servant and friend. In the midst of his merrymaking he receives a letter detailing Antonio’s misfortune. None of the ships have returned to port and as such he has no funds to pay the bond with. His flesh is forfeit to the Jew who is intent on having it. He insists he does not regret helping Bassanio and even does not wish him to feel guilty. He only asks him to come and attend his death so that he can see him one last time. Bassanio, along with Gratiano, rushes off with three times the amount owed and his wife’s blessing. The gentlemen leave in such a rush that they cannot consummate their marriages.Antonio, with Solanio and the jailer in attendance, tries to reason with Shylock and convince him to stop pursuing payment of the flesh, but to no avail. Further angered by the elopement and conversion of his daughter Jessica to one of Antonio’s Christian friends, Shylock is more determined than ever on revenge. Shylock looks to the law to allow him to fulfill in a legal manner his murderous intent. Antonio is not optimistic about his chances remarking that “The Duke cannot deny the course of law.” (MOV 3.3.26) As Antonio knows, Venice’s economy depended heavily on the business of foreigners as it was an important port for trade with many nations. As Jews were considered foreigners the fair adjudication of Shylock’s contract was necessary to keep secure the trade of the city.
We begin this act with Antonio’s trial. The Duke pleads with Shylock to give “a gentle answer”, a double entrende on the word Gentile, which meant someone not a Jew. Shylock refuses to deny his bond. Bassanio and Gratiano are in attendance and advocate strongly that the Jew be thwarted by any means necessary. Bassanio attempts to bribe him with three times the amount of the bond. Shylock says he will have nothing but his pound of flesh. All is lost until Portia and Nerissa arrive in the guise of young men pretending to be a learned doctor Balthasar and his clerk. Portia pleads for mercy and getting no further than the previous applicants she seems at first to confirm the strength of the bond and tells Antonio to prepare to pay it. When all seems hopeless Bassanio declares his despair:
"Antonio, I am married to a wife Which is as dear to me as life itself; But life itself, my wife, and all the world Are not with me esteemed above thy life, I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you. (MOV 4.1.281-286)"
Antonio is ready to die, having seen his friend one last time, but he does not have to. Shylock is foiled by Portia who points out that there is a loophole in his contract. He omitted the request to shed blood in taking the pound of flesh. As it is not possible for him to remove the flesh without taking blood which he did not ask for the bond is forfeit. Since Shylock is so insistent on absolute adherence to the law he is made to lose his bond and since he as a foreigner attempted to harm the life of a Venetian he is himself subject to punishment. Shylock leaves without his revenge with the added pain of having lost a portion of his wealth and his identity as a Jew through a forced conversion.Antonio and Bassanio leave together with Gratiano and run into the doctor and clerk still in disguise. They praise the doctor and insist on proffering favors onto “him.” At first Portia protests but then decides to test Bassanio’s love for her by asking for the ring she gave him which she made him swear never to part with as a symbol of their love. Not realizing the doctor is Portia in disguise Bassanio refuses to part with it but later after Antonio convinces him that surely his wife would understand that he did it for the person who saved his friend he sends to ring with Gratiano to the doctor. Nerissa then manages to secure the ring she gave Gratiano from him as well.
Antonio accompanies Bassanio home to Belmont to celebrate his good fortune and meet Portia. After some teasing, all discover the ladies deception in regards to the rings and the trial. Antonio plays benefactor again, this time to Jessica when he gives her legal documentation to show that she is to inherit Shylock’s property at his death. The play ends with Portia bearing good news that Antonio’s much anticipated ships have arrived safely in port. He is overjoyed at his good fortune so that while he remains the consummate bachelor he is not a poor one.
Symbolism pertaining to Antonio
Antonio is a symbol of Christian kindness, generosity, and love. These attributes are usually shown towards Bassanio or his friends. “In this and other ways he is a romantic figure. To his contemporaries he may have had a broader significance. In a group of medieval tales called the Tale of Abraham and Theodore, the rescue of a borrower from the clutches of a usurer was a symbol of man’s redemption.” (Campbell) Antonio helped Bassanio and prevented him from having to borrow money from a usurer, taking his place as the borrower instead. Antonio’s symbolism as Jesus or the perfect lamb is brought to mind. In Judaism a perfect lamb is sacrificed for a sin offering killed to deflect the wrath of God. Antonio is the perfect lamb about to be killed to appease the vengeance of Shylock. In Christianity, Jesus dies in the place of sinners. Antonio—like Jesus—takes the place of Bassanio as the borrower and savior. The fundamental weakness in both of these allegories is that Antonio's character is marred by hatred unlike the lamb (chosen for its purity), and unlike Christ (declared sinless in the New Testament). (Weiss).
Antonio’s sexuality, a controversy
There is controversy related to the sexuality of Antonio. Many gather from the writing of Shakespeare that he was gay, in a relationship with Bassanio. In the time period of the play homosexuality was a public practice with not only the lower class but even with high officials. Lines by Antonio such as “my person…lie [s] all unlocked to your occasions,” (MOV 1.1.46) are indications of a deeper love for Bassanio (O' Rourke). However there is also evidence that they may have been brothers indicated from the line “…Bassanio, your most noble kinsman…” (MOV 1.1.60) Alan Bray’s book, “Homosexuality in Renaissance England,” argues in the time period of The Merchant of Venice homosexuality was not an identity but strictly an act. There may have been some behind the scenes relations between Antonio and Bassanio but it would have been strictly a sexual ritual as opposed to an actual love between the two.
* Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
* Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Between men--between women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
* Campbell, Oscar James and Edward G. Quinn. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. New York: Thomas Y Crowell Company (1834).
* O'Rourke, James L. "Racism and Homophobia in The Merchant of Venice." ELH70. 2 (2003):
* Rosenshield, Gary. "Deconstructing the Christian Merchant: Antonio and The Merchant of Venice." Shofar 20.2 (2002)
* Shakespeare, William, and Kenneth Myrick. The Merchant of Venice With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography. New York: Signet Classic, 2004.
* Weiss, Scott. "Cross Examining Antonio: Shakespeare's Christian Merchant on Trial Again." Contributors. http://www.csus.edu/org/litjrnl/weisscritical.html
The Merchant of Venice
Portia (Merchant of Venice)
* [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/merchant/ Masterpiece Theatre's Merchant of Venice Page]
* [http://www.shakespeare-online.com/index.html Shakespeare Online]
* http://www.sonypictures.com/classics/merchantofvenice/flash.html 2004 Film Starring Jeremy Irons as Antonio]
* [http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/xMerchantof.html Study Guide on The Merchant of Venice]
* [http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-76,pageNum-46.html Cliffs Notes on the Merchant of Venice]
* [http://www.bardweb.net/plays/06.html Shakespeare Resource Centre on the Merchant of Venice]
* [http://www.nesl.edu/about/history.cfm New England School of Law History]
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