Antonio (The Merchant of Venice)
|Source||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 kind, generous, honest and confident, and is loved and revered by all the Christians who know him. His willingness to die for Bassanio. Antonio manifests his piety by cursing and spitting at Shylock (anti-semitism was common in Europe in Shakespeare's day).
Highlights of Antonio’s scenes
Act 1 When we first see him commiserating with his friends Solanio and Salerino 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 rialto to assure Shylock that he will be bound for the 3,000 ducats Bassanio wishes to borrow. Antonio has belittled and harassed Shylock in public, and he loathes him because when Christian friends of his owed money to the Jews he paid off the debts, thus depriving them of their interest. 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) He agrees to pay with a pound of flesh if he forfeits the bond in lieu of the usual interest.
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.
Act 3 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.
Act 4 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.
Act 5 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 an usurer was a symbol of man’s redemption.” (Campbell) Antonio helped Bassanio and prevented him from having to borrow money from an 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).
However, one could also perceive Antonio as representing a certain hypocrisy within the Elizabethan Christian church. For example, priests would preach that plenty was enough and to give to those worse off etc., whilst maintaining for a large part relatively luxurious lifestyles from their generous salaries. Whether Shakespeare intended to critique the Christian church or provoke controversy for dramatic purposes is unclear.
Antonio’s relationship with Bassanio
Antonio's deep friendship and dependence on Bassanio, his willingness to risk his life on Bassanio's account, and his draining of his own finances to support Bassanio has been read as supporting the theory that Antonio is homosexual. Some people believe that Antonio was just very good friends with Bassanio, and that he was almost like a son. People began to read Antonio as homosexual in the 1950s, but there are many objections. In that time period, the language was much more expressive, so people in the modern day society took Antonio to be homosexual. Modern productions use the theory that Antonio is suffering from his love for Bassanio to explain his melancholic behaviour, but it is not proven.
Many scholars, such as O'Rourke, gather from the writing of Shakespeare that Antonio is gay and in a relationship with Bassanio. Lines by Antonio such as “my person … lie[s] all unlocked to your occasions,” (MOV 1.1.46) seem to allude to a sexual dimension in Antonio's love for Bassanio. However, there is also evidence that the two shared a strictly fraternal, familial bond, as indicated by the line “Bassanio, your most noble kinsman …” (MOV 1.1.60) Other scholars maintain that all attempts to read Shakespeare's characters as gay or straight in terms of the modern understanding of the word are culturally and historically flawed.
Alan Bray’s book Homosexuality in Renaissance England argues that in the time period of The Merchant of Venice's composition, "homosexuality" did not refer to an individual's sexual identity but only to specific sexual acts any individual might engage in. As Bray writes: "To talk of an individual of this period as being or not being 'a homosexual' is an anachronism and ruinously misleading. The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot ... homosexuality [as understood in 15th-century England] was a sin 'to which men's natural corruption and viciousness [were] prone' " (16-17, Rainolds qtd. in Bray, 17). According to this argument, although there may have been physical relations between Antonio and Bassanio, to identify Antonio as a homosexual is anachronistic because any such identification draws on present-day beliefs about sexual activity as a correlative of sexual identity rather than accounting for the way male-male sexual relations were understood in the historical-cultural context of the play.
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (October 2010)|
- 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
- Masterpiece Theatre's Merchant of Venice Page
- Shakespeare Online
- 2004 Film Starring Jeremy Irons as Antonio
- Study Guide on The Merchant of Venice
- Cliffs Notes on the Merchant of Venice
- Shakespeare Resource Centre on the Merchant of Venice
- New England School of Law History