Discuss Antonio's character and his part in the play, The Merchant of Venice

Although the title of Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice refers to Antonio, and although the plot turns on Antonio's predicament, his character is lackluster and not sharply drawn. He is a rich, comfortable and popular man. None of the Christian community in Venice speaks of him except in terms of warmest love and esteem. And when the news of the bad fortune of his ventures reaches them, they all express genuine sorrow. What strikes the reader at the very outset is the fact that, in sharp contrast to his power and position in the Venetian society, he suffers from an inner sadness. He emerges in Act I, scene I as a hopeless depressive, someone who cannot name the source of his melancholy and who, throughout the course of the play, devolves into a self-pitying lump, unable to muster the energy required to defend himself against execution. Antonio’s loneliness and melancholy stands in sharp contrast to festive mood of the comedy. But, one really negative trait of Antonio’s character is his anti-Semitic slur against Shylock, which exceeds the boundary of a mere disliking of a usurer.
One of Antonio's most distinguishing characteristics is his generosity. He is more than happy to offer his good credit standing so that Bassanio can go to Belmont in the latest fashions in order to court Portia. And one of the reasons why Shylock hates Antonio so intensely is that Antonio has received Shylock's borrowers by lending them money at the last minute to pay off Shylock; and Antonio never charges interest. He is only too happy to help his friends, but he would never stoop to accepting more than the original amount in return. Antonio's generosity is boundless, and for Bassanio, he is willing to go to the full length of friendship, even if it means that he himself may suffer for it.
In the opening words of the play he confesses to a sadness for which he will give no reason; and on further inquiry, the only discoverable cause lies in the fact that he will have to resign his position as first in Bassanio's affections, since the latter is about to commence his suit for the hand of some unknown fair one. Yet he shows himself thoroughly unselfish in his devotion, and is even willing to violate all business principles and borrow money at interest, in order to lend Bassanio the money wherewith to purchase his outfit. Antonio shows not a little pride and belief in his own independent strength in the calm indifference with which he treats the dangerous condition inserted in the bond by the Jew; and his imprudence in this particular, combined with his former harsh treatment of Shylock, came near resulting in his utter destruction.
It is hard to reconcile his harshness toward Shylock with his general disposition and deportment, although there are extenuating reasons for his feelings of hostility. In the time in which he was supposed to live, the Jews were looked upon universally with abhorrence and contempt; the taking of interest was regarded as being in direct opposition with all Christian principles; and the individual character of Shylock was such as to arouse aversion in even the most tolerant.  Still, the treatment he received from Antonio was unjustifiable; and Antonio had to suffer for it. But in spite of this grave blemish, the merchant, with his grave kindliness, constancy, and unselfishness, is one who exacts admiration and esteem from all.

Considering the play as an organized whole, Antonio occupies the central position: hence the title of the play. As an individual, or as a dramatic personage, he excites far less interest than either Shylock or Portia; but it is nevertheless he who furnishes the ground for the meeting and contest of these two great forces in the play. Overall, Shakespeare makes Antonio a quiet, dignified figure.

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 8:04 PM