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...
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