What is the reason for Antonio's melancholy in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Antonio is portrayed as a melancholy character from the outset of the play. In the first scene, Antonio's friends, Salarino and Solanio, insist that Antonio is upset and depressed about his ships. Antonio is a wealthy merchant whose money is invested in his ships. Antonio's ships are currently out at sea, where they are subjected to the treacherous waves. However, Antonio denies this explanation for his melancholy disposition and mentions that he has no idea why he is so depressed.

Another possible explanation for Antonio's melancholy mood concerns his feelings towards Bassanio. Bassanio is much younger than Antonio and seeks Portia's hand in marriage. Being that Antonio is such a close friend of Bassanio's, he may be upset that his best friend is seeking marriage, which means that he will get to spend less time with him. Similar to this explanation is the argument that Antonio is in love with Bassanio and is depressed about losing him.

Another cause for Antonio's sadness may concern his inability to readily lend Bassanio money to travel to Belmont. Antonio is forced to borrow money from Shylock, who agrees to loan him the money on the condition that he exact a pound of his flesh if the loan is forfeited. The audience is aware that Antonio does not favor Shylock, and Antonio mentions that he never agrees to lend or borrow money with interest when he visits Shylock. Antonio quickly becomes worried about forfeiting his loan when he receives terrible news regarding his ships. After hearing the rumors concerning the dire condition of his vessels, Antonio becomes even more depressed, knowing that his life is in danger.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is obvious that Antonio is, indeed, suffering from melancholy in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice; however, the exact cause of his melancholy is not as obvious. He has friends (a fact that is demonstrated many times throughout the play) as well as enemies; he has money and he loses money; he likes to give but he is also driven to make money. All of these are elements which might cause conflict for a man, so several things are possible contributors to his melancholy state.

First, though he would like to, Antonio is unable to loan his friend, Bassanio, the money he wants to court Portia. Unfortunately, Antonio agrees to secure any loan Bassanio gets from anyone else and ends up in debt to his kind-of enemy, Shylock, a spiteful usurer who will eventually demand "a pound of flesh" from Antonio.

Second, all his ships (which are, of course, the source of his income) are at first loaded with goods which will provide him a handsome profit; however, Antonio eventually loses everything. This would certainly be cause for anyone to feel a sense of despair.

The final cause of Antonio's melancholy might stem from a kind of internal conflict between his natural tendency to be generous and his constant need, as a merchant, to make money. This dichotomy would, perhaps, cause the kind of melancholy Antonio demonstrates throughout the play. 

Whatever the cause, Antonio is a sad figure in this play. He says of himself: 

I hold the world but as the world...

A stage where every man must play a part

And mine a sad one.

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The Merchant of Venice

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