What are the characteristics of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In William Shakespeare's play, Antonio IS the merchant of Venice. It is Antonio whose agreement with the moneylender Shylock sets the stage, as it were, for the drama that follows. Despite his prominence in Shakespeare's play, however, Antonio is not a particularly interesting or compelling character. As Act I, Scene I begins, he is, as will prove his habit, lamenting his state of being. A trader by profession, he has immersed himself in a major business deal, the failure of which would result in his complete bankruptcy. Regretting that the weight of the world seemingly sits upon his shoulders, he responds to one of his friends with "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano; A stage where every man must play a part, And mine a sad one."

Antonio's greatest passion appears to be his friendship for Bassanio, whose love for Portia begets the merchant's fateful arrangement with Shylock. While Antonio's loyalty to Bassanio is admirable, if a little obsessive, his, and his friends' anti-Semitic verbal assaults on Shylock ("the dog Jew," "the villain Jew," etc.) have so scarred the vengeful moneylender that Shylock will happily pursue Antonio's debt to its logical extreme. 

While Shakespeare demonized the Jewish moneylender, providing an anti-Semitic portrait fit for the age in which The Merchant of Venice was written, Antonio is the more pathetic character. He is depressed and unlucky, but loved by his friends, while Shylock is successful but despised for his religion. The trial that provides for Shylock's poignant and memorable plea for humanity is a farce orchestrated by Antonio's friends, but the result is the humanization of the Jew while the hapless merchant remains essentially a loser, his fortunes having been lost when his ship failed to come ashore. Any descriptive essay focused on Antonio should highlight this character's depressive nature and his ineptitude as a businessman while also noting the importance of his arrangement with Shylock as the catalyst for the play's drama.

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