The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Extended Character Analysis

In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is the Venetian merchant for whom the play is titled. He is Bassanio’s wealthy, loyal, and anti-Semitic friend. Bassanio asks Antonio to help him secure the funds he needs to woo Portia, a wealthy heiress. Antonio agrees to borrow the money on Bassanio’s behalf. The Jewish moneylender Shylock, with whom Antonio shares a mutual animosity, agrees to lend Antonio the money. However, he asks that Antonio forfeit “a pound of flesh” if he defaults on the loan. Antonio’s conflict with Shylock animates the primary action of the play. Antonio, a devout Christian, is positioned as a Christ-like figure, readily sacrificing himself for Bassanio’s happiness. However, Antonio’s virulent anti-Semitism surfaces during his interactions with Shylock, complicating his seemingly virtuous character.

One of the primary questions concerning Antonio is whether to read his claims to martyrdom as straightforward or subversive. By reading Antonio’s sacrifice as straightforward and noble, the play takes on an anti-Semitic cast. By this reading, Antonio is the virtuous Christian, and Shylock is the merciless Jewish villain. Under this interpretation, Antonio embodies the selfless Christian martyr: He sacrifices himself so that the spendthrift Bassanio can find love and happiness. In Christ-like fashion, he absolves Bassanio of his debts and his involvement in taking out the loan. The Christian notion of mercy is evident in his decision not to take half of Shylock’s wealth in the aftermath of the trial decision. Antonio instead stipulates that Shylock must leave the money to his Christian son-in-law and convert to Christianity himself. If read from a Christian viewpoint, Antonio’s requests are meant to save Shylock’s soul.

However, Antonio’s embattled history with Shylock and his hypocrisy suggest that his supposed martyrdom may be read as a criticism of Christian prejudice against Jewish people. Though Antonio displays generosity and nobility in agreeing to guarantee Bassanio’s loan, he also takes a foolish risk by agreeing to give a pound of his flesh in the first place. Furthermore, by taking out a loan with interest, he breaks his own stated principles. Rather than being unjustly persecuted, Antonio’s misfortune is the result of his taking out an irresponsible loan. Shylock is within his rights to seek legal reparations.

By Shylock’s admission, his vendetta against Antonio is largely born from Antonio’s past mistreatment of him. From Shylock’s perspective, their positions are reversed: Antonio is the aggressor, and Shylock is the valiant avenger. Furthermore, while Antonio claims to be taking mercy on Shylock by forcing him to convert to Christianity, he is actually inflicting even greater cruelty. He effectively steals both Shylock’s faith and cultural identity. While Shylock is the villain of Antonio’s story, Antonio is the villain of Shylock’s, blurring the line between righteousness and evil.

The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio has also been a source of intrigue for Shakespearean scholars. The obvious depth of devotion between the two invites several different interpretations. By one reading, Antonio is a paternal figure to Bassanio. His devotion stems from his desire to see his younger friend prosper. Antonio’s financial support of Bassanio positions Antonio as an indulgent father who funds his spendthrift son’s schemes in the hopes that he will someday mature. The apparently unconditional love that Antonio has for Bassanio is that of a parent for a child. Bassanio’s assertion that he would sacrifice anything to save Antonio’s life reflects the filial devotion expected of Elizabethan sons.

Another reading positions Antonio and Bassanio as close friends who share a great Platonic love for one another. In Elizabethan England, Platonic male friendships were often privileged over spousal bonds. Most marriages between nobles were either arranged or formed for practical reasons. As such, married people often turned to their friends for the companionship and intellectual fulfillment that their marriages lacked. Bassanio’s declaration that he would sacrifice his marriage and “all the world” for Antonio speaks to the initial shallowness of his marriage to Portia. However, Portia challenges the idea that male friendships should be prioritized over spousal ones. Instead, she asks Bassanio to prioritize her over Antonio.

Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship can also be read as romantic. Antonio at times presents himself as a rival to Portia for Bassanio’s love. Though unable to offer Bassanio the comforts of marriage, Antonio offers him everything else he has to give—including his life. This culminates in his request that Bassanio “commend” him to Portia after Antonio’s death. He asks Bassanio to let her judge whether Bassanio “had not once a love.” Bassanio seems ignorant of Antonio’s romantic affections, pursuing Portia and exhibiting none of Antonio’s melancholy. However, Bassanio’s declaration that he would sacrifice “life itself, [his] wife, and all the world” in order to save Antonio’s life suggests a degree of mutual devotion. After Portia saves Antonio’s life, he is forced to relinquish his hold on Bassanio. Portia has Antonio pass the ring from her to Bassanio, symbolically asking Antonio to sanction Bassanio and Portia’s marriage.

One of the central motifs in The Merchant of Venice is the use of legal and financial language to describe interpersonal relationships. Bassanio begins the play indebted both emotionally and financially to Antonio. He pursues Portia in the hopes of paying off those debts. In order for Portia to secure Bassanio’s devotion for herself, she first has to disrupt Antonio’s claim on him. To do this, she must discharge Bassanio’s debts to Antonio. If Antonio died for Bassanio, then the debt between them could never be settled. So, Portia must save Antonio’s life. After Antonio is freed, both Antonio and Bassanio are indebted to Portia. At the end of the play, Portia, Antonio, and Bassanio form a new agreement: Bassanio will never again “break faith” with Portia, and Antonio’s soul will be the “surety” of the deal. This establishes the primary bond between Portia and Bassanio, with Antonio acting as the guarantor that Bassanio now belongs wholly to Portia.

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