Antonio is generally recognized as the merchant in The Merchant of Venice. He is a Christian who stands as the opposite of the money lender, Shylock who is a Jew. In European culture, when in the 1500s and 1600s Christianity was virtually universal, Antonio is also the symbol of Christianity. When Antonio is dealing with Bassanio, he does act like a Christian showing generosity, love, devotion, kindness. Later the same day, when he is talking with Shylock. Antonio shows not one shred of Christian qualities: he is hateful, mean, cruel, insulting. This is also part of the representation Christianity of the era because it was viewed as right to suspend Christian precepts when dealing with Jews.
Antonio is the pivotal character. On one side, it is his display of Christian values that lets Bassanio win Portia's hand. On the other side, it is his dearth of Christian values that incites an enraged Shylock to exact an absurd bond--the pound of flesh--for the lending of the three thousand ducats. Furthermore, the climax of the play centers around Antonio. When Antonio's pivotal and contradictory role is considered, it seems safe to say that yes, the title The Merchant of Venice is an appropriate one because it is through the merchant Antonio that Shakespeare explores the assumptions about Christian behavior and values.
Even though Antonio has a significant role and the play's title alludes to his character, The Merchant of Venice primarily concerns the actions of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Shylock is one of Shakespeare's most dynamic characters, and his decision to ask for a pound of Antonio's flesh creates conflict throughout the play. Shylock's duality is illuminated as the audience judges whether he is simply an oppressed minority in Venice, or a truly greedy usurer. Being a Jew in a predominantly Christian city is difficult for Shylock, who is continually discriminated against. Shakespeare creates sympathy for Shylock's character by revealing his emotions. One of the play's most famous speeches comes from Shylock, when he asks,
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. (3.1.50-60)
Despite Shylock's defense of his actions, there are other scenes in the play where he is depicted as a greedy, malevolent individual. Shylock's complex personality and significant role as antagonist are both entertaining and vital to the plot of the play. Perhaps, the title of the play should allude to Shylock and not Antonio.