Antonio in Merchant of Venice: Character Analysis

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  • Post last modified:May 12, 2021

The Character of Antonio in Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a masterpiece, a drama that proves the author’s prowess and art. The central characters in the drama are two friends Antonio and Bassanio, pitted against a Jewish and cunning villain Shylock. This masterpiece by Shakespeare is notable for being both comic and tragic. At the end, everyone is happy but over the course of the plot, tragedy escalates and it is Antonio who gets to bear most of the pain. He is an honest and faithful friend and his sacrifice for Bassanio proves his loyalty.

Shylock, despite being clever, cannot win against the two friends. He is full of malice and deceit. Antonio is a rich merchant and his friend is poor but wise and honest. However, the two are great friends and do not betray each other. Antonio is a bit childish, and gets easily excited. His flaws make him vulnerable to Shylock’s malicious planning. He cannot help speaking against Shylock and falls into the cruel villain’s trap. Antonio’s life passes through difficult and tragic turns till the conclusion of the drama. The reason he must face all the pain is because he is innocent, a little childish and loves his friend like a brother. At the end, his faith in his friend wins and Bassanio’s lover Portia helps him get safely out of Shylock’s clutches. A notable thing about Antonio’s character is that through him Shakespeare proves that goodness and true loyalty are rewarded at the end.

Shakespeare created simple, but interesting and life like characters. This is also true about his villains, whose presence in the drama would make things unpredictable. However, his heroes and the supporting characters too can sometimes be a little complicated. It is normal to find contrasting traits in his characters. Othello and Antonio are two good examples that Shakespeare created characters with special traits. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is a generous and loyal friend but blunt and aggressive when it comes to his enemies. At points, his character too seems tragic like Othello who takes the course of misery by not trusting his wife.  Antonio is a character who is simple and true, yet naïve and many times over confident.  Shylock uses this flaw in Antonio’s character to lay his trap.

Antonio, on the other hand seems to be lacking in some areas. Shakespeare has filled him with all the traits that make him appear a young and energetic person who lends himself to jeopardy by mistake. Shylock considers him a business man with no wisdom of the trade. Antonio is honest, never trades or loans unethically and does all things kind and good like helping a poor friend in need even at the cost of his life. He is rich and influential but Shylock turns him into a scapegoat. His honesty and love for his friend are his weaknesses that Shylock explots against him. Antonio’s character is filled with extra goodness and kindness. Shylock uses this trait to exploit his true friendship with Bassanio.

Antonio does not listen to his friend Bassanio’s warning. He accepts the Jew’s cruel offer. However, it also shows that Antonio is noble and courageous. Shylock exploits his innocence making him sign the sinister bond. Antonio has earned the hatred of the Jewish community with his remarks against their ugly business practices. Shakespeare also shows how religious and cultural differences lead to tensions and conflicts in the Venetian world. Shylock has been looking for the opportunity which arrives when Bassanio needs money. Unless he gets the money, he may lose his beloved Portia to someone else.  Antonio is bound by his loyalty for his friend. He agrees to borrow for him from his deadliest enemy Shylock.

 Things take a turn that makes readers feel like Antonio is being punished for his love and kindness. However, Shakespeare proves that honesty, loyalty and brotherhood make a person strong and Antonio is just an example. This is where Shakespeare’s art lies. He is not trying to make Antonio an epitome of loyalty, brotherhood and ethics but the weapon against jewish greed. It is a good Antonio with a large heart standing against an evil and greedy Shylock. The cunning Jew believes he has all the right cards in his hands. However, Antonio’s simplicity makes the villain betray his real traits and his real face becomes public while he is trying to exact revenge. The tragedy that has followed Antonio at last falls on Shylock. His cruelty is returned in full and he loses nearly everything dear to him – life, wealth, religion and even his dearest daughter.

Antonio is a kind hearted man, proud of being a Christian and slightly arrogant and childish. His weakness shows up in the form of his anti-semitism. Hidden behind these traits is his solemnity and his profound love for humanity and his close friends. As Bassanio spells out, he is the noblest man. Shakespeare has not portrayed him as someone full of common sense because that role is to be played by Portia. Antonio is young and energetic but loses control of his tongue when it comes to the Jews. Despite, it all Shakespeare has proved him innocent in the drama and even if he appears to be on the receiving end, he is not there. However, if not for his childishness, he would not have landed himself in a situation where he had to bear as much agony. He proves himself a loyal friend, willing to go to any extent for his friend’s sake. Of course such friendships do not seem possible in real life.  Any person of sane mind would not lend himself to the kind of trouble Antonio did. It is the peak of love for a friend and in Antonio, Shakespeare has again created an inspiring character in whom people can find all the traits of a good man. So much love and loyalty are not easily found. If it is Shakespeare, things are bound to get too dramatic.

 However, if Shakespeare and his works win, then it is because despite all flaws or contrasting traits, his characters engage whether they are mad lovers, cunning villains or even the ones with a limited appearance in the drama. It is also true about Antonio. He is an engaging and interesting character. He wins our sympathy for his act of generosity, readiness to take risks, love and fearlessness. His anti semitism seems pardonable when Shylock’s ugly intentions are public. Antonio is quite straight forward. He says what he thinks. Shylock hates it and plots to end Antonio’s life. The Christians seem to be a bit too cruel to the villain towards the end of the drama. However, the hatred Shylock’s heart was filled with needed a cure. It had taken the form of poison. Antonio courageously speaks and stands against it. Seen in the Venetian context, Antonio’s anger is both honest and justified.  This is also the core strength of his character – his faith in ethics and his love for others including Bassanio.

At last, Portia saves the poor creature from impending death in the court. She saves the young Christian from punishment with her exceptional wit. She comes as a saviour and saves Antonio from cruel execution. However, it also makes readers pity Antonio and his lack of common sense. Portia’s wisdom saves his heart by an inch. Antonio becomes a hero for having put his life at stake for his friend.  His truth and loyalty make him the audience’s favorite. An otherwise tragic but electrical drama comes to a pleasant conclusion. One thing that can be noticed about Shakespeare’s works is that it also attacks corruption in the society. Shylock could have gained an upper hand and thrust his dagger into Antonio’s heart. Corruption and greed would have won if not for a timely intervention by Portia. Whether it is Antonio’s frustration over Shylock’s unethical practices or Shylock’s over religious discrimination, Shakespeare highlights the ills plaguing the society of his time. In this sense, his works and his characters have a timeless and unending appeal. The solution lies in goodness of heart and humanity. Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship inspires us to stand together against all corruption and hatred in the society.

Learn More about Shakespeare’s life and works.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.