Shakespeare’s Antonio: A Lie in Venice

by Carl C. Curtis (October 2012)

One of the curious oversights among scholars of The Merchant of Venice involves Antonio in act 1, scene 1. I refer specifically to two statements he makes in that scene, which, if understood by their plain meaning, as indeed I think they should be, provide a key—perhaps the key—to understanding his character, one that stretches from this point to the very end of the play. The first statement occurs in his opening conversation with Solanio and Salerino, where Antonio avers that his famous melancholy has nothing to do with his mercantile ventures. He reassures them:

Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year.
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (MV 1.1.41–45)1

As for the second statement near the end of the scene, what Antonio says then is curious to say the least. In response to Bassanio’s petition for yet another loan, Antonio asserts,

Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money, nor commodity
To raise a present sum. Therefore go forth.
Try what my credit can in Venice do:
That shall be racked, even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.
Go presently inquire, and so will I,
Where money is; and I no question make
To have it of my trust or for my sake. (MV 1.1.177–185; emphasis added)

Whatever the reader may think of Antonio—and the assessment of his character has been a perennial controversy—it seems unlikely that he would be so careless with his words as to make two comments so much at variance with one another in so short a time without a motive. It is, again, my argument that the two speeches mean exactly and deliberately what they say; it is Antonio’s intent that is in question. It is my hope that by looking at these speeches with more care we will be able to determine what this merchant is all about and, more importantly, what Shakespeare is telling us about him and, on the larger canvas, about Venice, his city and the symbolic world it occupied.

Taken by themselves, Antonio’s words concerning his “ventures” have sparked some disagreement. For example, Cynthia Lewis (19 – 31)2 tends to dismiss them as the product of inattention; opposed to that view, Barbara Tovey (274) sees Antonio’s words as suggestive of “an excellent money manager who diversifies his investments and maintains a financial reserve” although she makes little of the fact, preferring rather curiously to develop a thesis that Antonio is a man of faith, a symbol of a Christian Venice. Lawrence Danson holds a similar view, referring to Antonio’s “canniness” in “hedg[ing] his mercantile bets” (23). Yet Antonio’s words are significant, and it hardly makes sense for such a carefully framed reply to be written off. A smart, calculating businessman, Antonio has sent six different ships to six different ports. More than that, his “ventures,” he says, “are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year” (MV 1.1.42–44). In light of the remaining action—nearly all five acts of it—this remark is intriguing. The confident declaration tells us that the merchant has acted with great caution with regard to his “estate.” He not only has played the maritime commercial game very conservatively, but he also has gone so far as to reserve an unspecified (and, given his overt confidence, may we not assume considerable?) part of his wealth at home for future investment. This is the sense of the words that are uttered in order to silence Salerino and Solanio. That the Bric and Brac of Shakespeare’s Venice have nothing more to say on the subject at the very least suggests that his answer has satisfied them, and there’s no reason it should not.

Antonio’s state of affairs then is simply this. First, he has six ships at sea aimed at different ports under the supposition that some of them—four, three, two, even one—will reach its destined port. That two would grant him a return equal to the three thousand ducats he later will borrow from Shylock is, if we take his words literally in act 1, scene 3, a matter of simple arithmetic. Second, he has sequestered some part of his property at home—and, again, his confidence would lead to the conclusion that this is no small amount. Whatever the cause of Antonio’s melancholy, it is certain that, hardheaded businessman that he is, it is not related to money.

With that in mind, let us go to the second of Antonio’s statements on his “estate.” Bassanio needs a large sum of money to equip himself in such a way as to impress the fair Portia. When he petitions Antonio for this specific need, he gets the reply we have already read. What sensible conclusion may be drawn from this answer? We cannot attribute Antonio’s words “all my fortunes are at sea; / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum” (MV 1.1.177–179) to a lapse of memory. His mind seems capable enough of retaining any number of thoughts. No, unthinkable as it may be, the obvious conclusion is that Antonio is lying. The first real question involves to whom he is lying; the second is why.

I should say first that it seems very unlikely that Antonio is lying to Salerino and Solanio about his financial state. For if it had been his desire to conceal the reason for his melancholy, which some have identified as his love (homosexual, paternal, or platonic) for Bassanio, what better means to do so than to assign his psychological condition to a case of maritime jitters? That he does not take the opportunity Salerino has offered points to openness in this matter, not concealment, and leads to the conclusion that the lie is to Bassanio.

That brings us to the motive for the lie. To solve that mystery is a complicated business, for it takes us beyond Antonio into Antonio’s world: Venice. Certainly, Venice is one of the fascinating venues of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jonson, as well as Shakespeare, knew of its attractions as a city and a setting for drama. It was New York, Las Vegas, and Paris rolled into one. That an Englishman of means might have found it attractive is beyond doubt, as Sir Politic Would-Be and Peregrine in Volpone illustrate. In the words of Sabellico, the late fifteenth-century chronicler of Venice, it was “the jewel casket of the world” (Burckhardt 83 – 84; Draper 179), and although it is impossible to know whether Shakespeare ever heard or read the phrase, the gold and silver caskets in Portia’s lottery show how well he understood the city symbolically.3 Money, goods, and those activities requisite to commercial traffic define Venice. Necessarily, therefore, it is a man’s world, and Shakespeare knows it. Some years ago, Harry Berger called the prominent male figures of the play the “Royal Merchant Adventurers Club of Venice” (Berger 161), and although in my view this paints the activities of Shakespeare’s boys of Venice a bit too grandly, the assessment is largely right. A club it is, adolescent to the core with its jesting, jaunty merchants, who, so far as we can discover, are serious about three things only: friendship, business, and anti-Semitism. All in all it’s something akin to freemasonry conceived on the small scale. Domestic life—married life—is never presented in the city, and notably no woman ever appears publicly in Venice as a woman. Jessica must elope with Lorenzo dressed to her shame as a boy, and Portia and Nerissa as they enter the city’s confines masquerade as male jurists, perhaps the most mature “men” in the play.

All of which raises the issue of homosexuality in the Venice Shakespeare has created. As I have already observed, the city is presented as a masculine, even boyish world. Whether one reads this as homosexual is another matter. In a dramatic entity such as Venice where male camaraderie (Salerino and Solanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano, even Lorenzo and Jessica-as-boy) is the rule, Antonio and Bassanio stand out remarkably, even notoriously. Tovey correctly observes that the boys make themselves scarce in order to leave the two alone the moment Bassanio makes his entrance (Tovey 270). But does this mean they are homosexual in any true sense? Does Antonio look upon Bassanio with a forbidden longing? Lawrence Hyman, although he recognizes that the main action of the play focuses on the rivalry of Antonio and Portia for Bassanio’s love, regards any romantic attachment on Antonio’s part impossible because he is a man, and his “almost passionate friendship” for Bassanio is romantically innocent (113). John W. Draper (178 – 179), Barbara Lewalski (329), and Morriss Henry Partee (66), inter alia, either by direct statement or by implication also rule out the possibility of homosexuality. For Partee, Antonio stands as a paragon of such high virtue and “Christian charity” that a homosexual liaison would be out of the question. Those of the opposing school, of which Tovey, James O’Rourke and Steve Patterson are good examples, find Antonio’s homosexual disposition at the very least strongly hinted and in some instances blatant, the very root of his melancholy (Tovey 270; O’Rourke 377; Patterson 14).

It is arguable that in the absence of any soliloquies from Antonio we can never know the nature and extent of his disposition in act 1, scene 1 or elsewhere. One critic, perhaps in an act of desperation, attributed Antonio’s melancholy to black bile and left it at that (Dillingham 419). Medically and psychologically true, but hardly enlightening. Cynthia Lewis insists that those “critics who argue that Antonio’s opening melancholy stems from his grief over Bassanio’s imminent departure are, quite simply, fabricating evidence” (21).4 But is this so? Even though we cannot know everything Antonio thinks, it does not follow that we therefore know nothing, or that his silence rules out any discernible ulterior motives regarding his relationship to the younger, nobler man. Among other things, Shakespeare shows us a man who is anxious, perhaps a bit uncertain, but not about his merchandise. When Bassanio arrives and the two are left alone, he immediately reveals that he knows something about Bassanio’s lady (Tovey 269). If we consider his words, “Well, tell me now what lady is the same / To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage, / That you today promised to tell me of” (MV 1.1.119–121), we discover, true, what is obvious, that we have entered the relationship of the two men in medias res with some particular details that beg for analysis. Clearly, Bassanio mentioned a “lady” to Antonio sometime earlier, probably very recently, and Antonio has anticipated, with precisely what thoughts we cannot know, the garnering of more information about her, as indicated by his immediate inquiry. And we do know that with this in the background he enters the action melancholy. Notably, Antonio has heard very little about Bassanio’s lady. His words about “pilgrimage” are vague, suggesting a world of things. Does he anticipate Bassanio’s making a voyage across the sea, an elopement, such as Lorenzo and Jessica plan, or a local backstreet tryst? The merchant poses the critical question without delay.

Bassanio does not answer him directly. And here Shakespeare is at his best, for through this momentary digression he will provide a window into Antonio’s soul. Bassanio’s first words are about his financial state, to which Antonio replies:

I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it,
And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honor, be assured
My purse, my person, my extremest means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions. (MV 1.1.135–139)

The generosity of the speech is the most impressive thing about it, telling us that Antonio is prepared to extend to his kinsman a portion or perhaps all (“extremest means”) of his “whole estate,” which, as he assured Salerino and Solanio, is not “[u]pon the fortune of this present year.” Feelings of this nature may or may not indicate homosexual tendencies (O’Rourke 379),5 but they display without question an urgent desire to assert a very special kind of love on behalf of another.

The exchange gets more interesting when Bassanio launches into his encomium of Portia. As I have noted already, Antonio apparently knows very little about her, and if we conclude as I believe we should that women are rather lower on the Venetian scale of goods than both male comrades and acquired wealth, then the revelation of Portia’s worth must necessarily be disturbing to him. Bassanio leaves little to speculation on the point:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages,
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia;
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renownèd suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her. (MV 1.1.161–172)

It is not my point here to analyze this speech in depth; the gist of it is clear enough for my purpose: the “lady” is not someone Antonio can ignore.

Nevertheless, based upon the magnanimity he displayed just a few moments before, we would expect Antonio to immediately offer Bassanio whatever he needs from the store of wealth he has asserted is in his possession. As we know, he does not. His “whole estate” has vanished; his liquidity, as modern economists would describe it, has suddenly, inexplicably evaporated, or as he explains, “Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea; / Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum” (MV 1.1.177–179; emphasis added). That is to say, he lies. What he does next must intrigue us even more:

Try what my credit can in Venice do;
That shall be racked, even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia.
Go, presently inquire, and so will I,
Where money is; and I no question make
To have it of my trust or for my sake. (MV 1.1.180–185)

And so we return to our original question: why? First, let me say that I cannot accept this as an act of Christian charity as, for example, Lewalski does, claiming that Antonio is a Christ-figure by virtue of a sacrificial loan that makes Bassanio’s pilgrimage to Belmont possible (Lewalski 336). Antonio perceives that in Portia, as so many have noted, he has a rival, one noble, rich, and dangerous. I agree fully with Professor Patterson that this rivalry is one of marriage versus friendship or amity, to use the word he asserts would have been more precisely descriptive of a kind of same-sex, marginally homosexual love well known in Tudor and Elizabethan England (Patterson 11 – 14). The point he underscores in his study is that in the sixteenth century both same-sex amity and marriage vied to replace an older feudal notion of contract marriage. We cannot doubt that Lewalski is correct in arguing that Antonio does indeed make Bassanio’s courting of Portia a reality, that is, on the ground that Bassanio sees a wealthy front as prerequisite to success (Tovey 267),6 but we can also see the extent to which he expects the sacrifice to be gratefully recognized. On the scale of loves in he mind of the Venetian Antonio, amity conquers connubial love. What Shakespeare therefore describes in the Merchant is not simply a rivalry of lovers, but a rivalry of loves, and hence a scale of human motives and a calculus of ultimate worth. At stake is Bassanio’s place in the world. Will he be of Venice, a city that claims universality based on commerce (as Antonio says, “the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations” [3.3.30–31]) and, as I will point out later, the softening of the effects of Fortune, or will he be of Belmont, a city of love and Christian marriage?

Throughout this key exchange, Antonio presents himself as the most calculating of men, broadly a Machiavellian type. We must wait for this to become clear, but his reasoning follows basically this line: Bassanio may win Portia, and he may enjoy marital bliss, but he will always remember who made it possible. The memory of the glorious sacrifice for a friend, here of chief importance, will override even the joyous recollection of successful wooing, provided Antonio’s proffered means to the goal are extended in such a way as to make them and him superior to the goal itself. Antonio anticipates, or more properly calculates, that this will happen through his placing himself in jeopardy for the sake of his friend. Jeopardy means Shylock.

It might be argued that it is Bassanio, not Antonio, who selects Shylock as the lending agent in the transaction that will follow. The play, however, is not so clear on the point, and it does not matter very much. What is more significant in the scene is Antonio’s understanding of Shylock. That there is no love lost between the two men is obvious. Shylock’s soliloquy as Antonio approaches, as well as his later words in the scene, sketches a history of their relationship, one of business rivalry that has spawned a seething hatred. Shylock hates Antonio because he is a “Christian / But more, for that . . . / He . . . brings down / the rate of usance” (MV 1.3.40–42). Moreover, we find that on numerous occasions Antonio has rescued borrowers from Shylock’s grasp. The commercial war between the two has not been accidental and passive but purposeful—and especially so on Antonio’s part. Shylock’s attitude clearly shows that he now will go on the offensive. But in recognizing this truth, one also must note that Antonio readily plays into Shylock’s clutches. Here is a man, the “Jew,” of whom Antonio knows he should be wary, who hates him with a passion sufficiently notorious that Antonio cannot be ignorant of it, and whom he hates in return. His “[t]he devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (MV 1.3.95) reveals explicitly what we surmise. Common sense would tell Antonio that the moment Shylock proposes anything in the least suspicious, he should sift the proposal for an ulterior, treacherous motive. In fact, scrutiny is hardly necessary, so bald is the malice behind Shylock’s terms; Bassanio sees the clear danger implicit in the bond of “an equal pound / Of . . . fair flesh” (MV 1.3.147–148), exclaiming, “You shall not seal to such a bond for me” (MV 1.3.152). Yet Antonio—who has just testified to the depth of his animosity for Shylock, first, by calling him not just a “devil,” but a devil who uses holy words deceitfully, and, second, by declaring his undying animosity toward him in his determination to spit upon him in the future as he has in the past—unexpectedly warms to Shylock with his “Content, in faith” (MV 1.3.150) but only after the terms of the bond are revealed. If Bassanio feels uneasy about the bond, should not we who, knowing about Antonio’s strangely contradictory statements earlier in the play, feel the force of the contradiction here? What reason can there be for such a sudden change of heart?

It is my belief that Antonio knows exactly whom he is dealing with from first to last. Far from believing Shylock to be the “gentle Jew” (MV 1.3.176) he bids farewell at the end of the scene, Antonio assesses Shylock in precisely the same way he did at the beginning. The difference does not lie in Antonio’s understanding of Shylock’s character but in the opportunity that Shylock’s bond presents. Where before Antonio saw merely a rather common means of making Bassanio beholden to him for the matériel of courtship—servants in their liveries and presents galore—now he gains a greater advantage in placing his life on the line for his friend. Lewalski correctly identified the gesture as Christ-like, citing the well-known chapter and verse behind the deed (John 15.13) (330), but she missed the motive. Antonio’s desire here is not to behave as Christ in this scene or later in the trial; rather the goal is to appear Christ-like, much as the gold and silver caskets in the Belmont lottery appear to conceal Portia’s likeness.

Let me add this clarification: whether the bond ever becomes forfeit is not the point. Antonio needn’t literally quiver under Shylock’s knife to claim Bassanio’s undying and primary love. He need do no more than place himself in danger of the bond’s forfeiture. With that in mind we can understand better Antonio’s later response to Shylock’s very real threat when the bond becomes forfeit. The prospect of the impending surrender of the pound of flesh frightens Antonio as his words, “Hear me yet, good Shylock” (MV 3.3.4), indicate. He is but a man, and in his attempt to appear Christ-like he prays that the cup be taken from him. Tracing the Gethsemane analogy further, although Shylock is not God the Father, like Him he refuses to show Antonio mercy. But the great surprise is how quickly Antonio resigns himself to his fate (no sweat like drops of blood here). Why? Because a greater opportunity—one that could not have been entirely absent from his thinking—has presented itself. If the remote chance of dying for Bassanio guarantees the future loyalty of the beloved to the true lover, how much more will the certainty of death. Antonio’s “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (MV 3.3.35–36; emphasis added) really means what it says.

The assumption of many scholars regarding the danger in which Antonio finds himself is that he is  “a [helpless] debtor and failed businessman” (Benbow 163) in the clutches of a merciless creditor. That without question is what Antonio wants everyone but especially Bassanio to believe. Even Shylock declares him “[a] bankrupt, / a prodigal” (MV 3.1.40–41). The letter Bassanio receives at Belmont underscores the point. One cannot but wonder, however, how strong the evidence is for the claim, which, it is worthy of attention, is Antonio’s. The play indicates that Antonio has six ships traveling to six different ports. Of the six we hear fairly trustworthy reports of two that have foundered. These are the wrecks at the “Goodwins” (MV 3.1.4) and “Tripolis” (MV 3.1.92). Possibly a third has gone down. What of the remaining three ships “[f]rom Lisbon, Barbary, and India” (MV 3.2.269)? Of them there is no word—except that of Antonio in his letter. Naturally, Shylock accepts the news of total bankruptcy as genuine since it feeds his vengeful passions, and no one contradicts it. But the rumor does more than that. It serves Antonio’s purpose by placing his life in jeopardy so dire that he can confidently write Bassanio to speed to his side to see his death, an end that will assure his place as the first of his “friend’s” loves.

The letter to Bassanio in Belmont is interesting for its strangely humble tone that serves simultaneously the most arrogant and nefarious of purposes: the manipulation of a friend for purely selfish reasons. If we consider his words, Antonio says in essence that Bassanio can do nothing for him except to watch him die. That in itself qualifies his claims of friendship. If Bassanio is both a dear friend and helpless to save him, then wouldn’t it make more sense for Antonio to tell him not to come, or instruct an agent to send a modified valedictory letter after his death? The letter sounds a different note:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all
miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is
very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since
in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all
debts are cleared between you and I if I might but
see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your
pleasure. If your love do not persuade you to come,
let not my letter. (MV 3.2.314–321)

Note that Antonio asserts without qualification that all his ventures have failed, and the “estate” he earlier assured Salerino and Solanio he had in reserve has now become “very low.” More than that, his friendship rests on a condition: Bassanio may forget the debt “if” he comes. The “debt” is not, I think, so much a monetary as an emotional one, and considered so becomes hypocritical in the extreme. For surely the “debt” Antonio will lay on Bassanio as the latter sees him die will never be cleared but burn in Bassanio’s guilt-ridden memory as long as he lives, exactly as it is intended to do.

Interestingly, Shakespeare does more here than offer a recitation of Antonio’s woes; he has Bassanio read the letter in Portia’s presence at her request, a moment of dramatic tension that few would miss but that only the greatest of playwrights would utilize to the fullest. It is not my intention here to analyze Shakespeare’s heroine in depth, but I firmly believe that in Portia he created one of his finest characters. A woman of supreme intelligence and prudence, she understands the import of the letter far better than the man to whom she has just surrendered herself and her property. The pun on “love” is perhaps the letter’s most significant feature. Is Antonio referring to the “love” Bassanio has for him, or does he mean the “love” Bassanio has just won, the new rival beloved? Since it is a pun, we may assume justly that he means both. He wants his loving friend to see him die, and he wants Portia to ratify his regal status in Bassanio’s soul. That is to say, Venice conquers Belmont. All in all, his “if your love persuade you not to come” is a dare to Portia to affix her seal to a treaty of capitulation in the war of the rival lovers and rival ways of life. That she attempts instead to save Antonio herself, first through the payment of the bond (“Pay him six thousand” and “[d]ouble six thousand, and then treble that” [MV 3.2. 299–300]) and second through her transformation into Balthasar, the civil doctor, highlights the depth of her understanding of Antonio, her enemy in love.

In relation to this, we know that Antonio’s ships have not, as he writes, “all miscarried.” Portia’s mysterious discovery at the end of the play that three of his ships in fact have not perished but come to port not only indicates her determination to sweep her rival from the field, but also suggests that Antonio has exaggerated his cruel fate without real warrant. It is, to be sure, a strange man who would perform such a deed, one born for the psychoanalyst’s couch. But Shakespeare is not interested in morbid psychology as much as he is in the lure of everything Antonio stands for, the influence of Venice over that of Belmont and the assertion of the claims of a mercantile society as a virtual principle of life. His literal claim is on Bassanio; the symbolic claim is that of the modern, his methods appropriate to a Machiavellian. Antonio has calculated the effects on Bassanio correctly, and he stands poised to make the claim of Venice over Belmont, of male friendship over marriage, of the blessings of acquisition over the blessings of family and one of the chief mystical symbols of the relationship of God to man. Ultimately, what is at stake here is an understanding of the basis of human community.

I have tagged Antonio Machiavellian, and I realize that such a label might constitute a bold, unjust claim. It is possible to regard his actions as less those of a calculating man and rather those of a naïf. However, my chief reason for rejecting him as naïve rests additionally upon his later actions during and following the trial. They smack of a man who measures his actions and words carefully and who maneuvers as deliberately in his dealings with others as he expects his ships to do in dangerous waters. Unexpected storms may blow, currents may prove uncertain, but the man of calculation adjusts his projects accordingly and steers toward his goal, which is about material well-being. One may note too that as Antonio galls the wound in Bassanio’s guilty conscience, he guarantees himself a kind of personal glory through his sacrifice—a great good on the Machiavellian scale (Alvis 94). He is determined to claim supremacy over Portia in Bassanio’s affections and, as I have noted above, in his memory. As long as Bassanio remembers what his “friend” has done, he will never mistake his wife’s love for the superior one Antonio offered in his sacrifice.

Besides, there is some historical evidence to suggests that in Shakespeare’s England foreign merchants, Italian in particular, were labeled Machiavellian. James O’Rourke points out that the phrase “Machiavellian merchant” was used in the late sixteenth century to refer to usurious Italian lenders (O’Rourke 377).7 For Shakespeare, I believe, the popular slur offered an occasion to examine something much deeper than local prejudices. In any event, Antonio as Italian merchant and Machiavellian is a connection that the playwright easily might have made and which, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he used as he saw fit.

Antonio then is a living symbol of the new world of human relations guided by acquisition, calculation, and the glory that accompanies success and binds men—the men of Venice—together (Auden 113).8 If we translate this enterprise into Machiavellian terminology, as I believe Shakespeare meant us to, we discover a coterie of men engaged in the conquest of Fortune. A comical scoundrel such as Lancelot Gobbo may be the only one who recites the Florentine political philosopher’s formula, “Fortune be a woman” (MV 2.2.155; Machiavelli 146 – 149), but in doing so he simply states the defining principle of Venice of which Antonio is the chief emblem. Antonio does indeed play with Fortune, taking a number of chances—with his ships, with his “friend” Bassanio, with Shylock, and finally with a real woman Portia—but he weighs the odds in each of these projects to his best advantage, calculating the outcome of each. If he succeeds, he will live in Bassanio’s memory—the glory Machiavelli prizes so highly—and by so doing poison and demean the marriage. In understanding his mentality, we see the very nature of his activities throughout the play, and, more to the point, we begin to understand Shakespeare’s view of the modern man’s grasping, selfish disposition.

With these things in mind, we come to the trial in act 4. Readers and perhaps especially viewers of the play hardly can be blamed for seeing Antonio as Christ-like here. His words “Grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you” (MV 4.1.264) echo the Lamb of God in ways that many a scholar has noted (again, Barbara Lewalski comes to mind) and neatly sketch the character of one who thinks only of his friend and pays, or is willing to pay, the ultimate penalty for the sins of another. Nevertheless, Shakespeare would have his audience probe deeper into the psyche of this man. Christ, as I believe the age would have understood Him, was the final, the perfect ransom for mankind. He did not deserve death; man did. He gave himself in fulfillment of a penalty that He alone, the unique, perfectly just God-man, could satisfy, and thereby frees man from his guilt with His “It is finished” (John 19.30). And because He did not have to submit to such a punishment and humiliation, the sacrifice was greater still, as poets and theologians at least from Dante forward saw. Such was and is the Christ. Does Antonio match up even remotely, which is all we can expect, to that standard? Perfection we can dismiss, but is he the judicial sacrifice for Bassanio? In other words, just as mankind would remain under the penalties of sin and death had Christ refused crucifixion, would Bassanio have fallen under the curse of Shylock’s bond had Antonio skipped town? Since he is not “nominated in the bond” (MV 4.1.257), he would not. It’s rather interesting how little attention Shylock pays to Bassanio. And, besides, Bassanio did not sign the bond. So, although Antonio with every appearance of love reminds Bassanio that he is tossing his life aside for him, he is in truth doing nothing of the kind. Far from freeing his “friend” from any taint of guilt, he does everything he can to heap guilt upon him. There is no “It is finished” here; instead, this is intended as the beginning of a life of guilt for the one Antonio “loves.” Hardly Christ-like, but the appearance is everything, and it almost succeeds.

More interestingly, Antonio insists without any justification on stressing the superiority of his love over Portia’s. In his letter in act 3, Antonio declared, “If your love persuade you not to come”; in act 4, he states his case in even stronger language:

Commend me to your honorable wife.
Tell her the process of Antonio’s end,
Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death,
And when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love. (MV 4.1.271–275)

His reasons are clear enough. Ask your wife, he seems to say—and ask her again and again and again. The rivalry of lovers evinces itself in the speech, one that Antonio believes will be his swan song. Manifestly, it will be Bassanio’s part to recite these words over and over to Portia in the years to come. Consider Antonio’s earlier statement “You cannot better be employed, Bassanio, / Than to live still and write mine epitaph” (MV 4.1.117–118). Nothing Portia can do for the rest of her life will ever surpass the deed of the dying friend. At best she might equal it by dying sacrificially too—but in that she would only mimic Antonio.

In Portia’s understanding of the working of Antonio’s mind Shakespeare offers the best confirmation of the Machiavellian process behind his apparent sacrifice. We need only recall her options to see how true this is. Portia enters the court disguised as the clerk Balthasar, we may assume well coached and well equipped by Belario to argue for Antonio’s acquittal. How much she knows about the bond lies hidden from the reader, but her prudence serves her well once she has read it in court. I am fully persuaded that the foiling of Shylock with the legal technicalities of the weight of one pound and only one pound, and the prohibition of the shedding “[o]ne drop of Christian blood” (MV 4.1.308) are inventions that spring from her mind and no other, characteristic of the prudent woman. However, she arrives with sufficient understanding of the law to dismiss the case without further argument. As all readers of the play should know, when Shylock attempts to withdraw from the court, Portia stops him with her “Tarry, Jew” (MV 4.1.344), followed by the shocking revelation that Venetian law decrees any proceeding with malice by an alien against a citizen requires nothing less than the death penalty and confiscation of the criminal’s property. It’s plain that she knew of this decree before she entered the court (Tovey 283 – 284; Bloom and Jaffa 32 – 33). How could it be otherwise? Yet she delayed making it known for a purpose, namely, to permit Antonio to arrive at the moment of execution in order for her to save him—what shall we say?—almost theatrically. Thus she deftly turns the tables on her adversary, implicitly demonstrating that she knows him through and through, and asking him a question similar to the one he posed to Bassanio: How much do you owe to the one who saved you? In this, she will undermine all his calculations and deprive him of the glory he seeks in Bassanio’s memory.

Inasmuch as Antonio has no idea that Portia has saved him, it is no surprise that in spite of his rather curious setback of avoiding execution he cannily tries to assert yet again his superiority over Portia by insisting that Bassanio surrender the ring to Balthasar. That the ring, a pledge of fidelity between husband and wife, represents to him a medium of exchange, coin, as it were, for services rendered, says much of Antonio’s attitude toward the sacrament of marriage. The debasement of the institution is just one more in a series of machinations by which he intends to diminish in Bassanio’s heart any love that threatens to take the place of his and alienates him from Venice. He declares, “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring. / Let his deservings and my love withal, / Be valued against your wife’s commandment” (MV 4.1.447–449). For all the scholarly attempts to whitewash the episode, Antonio’s request paints a true picture of how he wishes Bassanio to rate Portia and himself. Furthermore, he makes his request only after he has heard Bassanio beg the learned clerk to accept some other fee, and has understood the importance of the ring.

The final act of the play, though marked for its hilarity, nevertheless locates the bearings for human conduct in the victory of Portia over Antonio, of marriage over commerce, and finally of Christianity over modernity. Dramatically the scene is charged with tension as Portia as wife and Antonio meet for the first time. We may well imagine that Antonio enters the world of Belmont a triumphant figure, holding the exalted place at the summit of Bassanio’s affections, confident that Portia must of necessity submit to a state of affairs that, after all, was the status quo before Bassanio wooed her, and has now been confirmed as permanent through the younger man’s relinquishing of the ring. Bassanio’s introduction of him as the man “[t]o whom I am so infinitely bound” (MV 5.1.135) bolsters Antonio’s view.

Antonio is all grace and modesty, and why not? He has, to borrow Bassanio’s earlier trope, proven himself the Jason in capturing the fleece. The high-jinks that follow explode the illusion. What emerges as most significant here for my purposes is Antonio’s intercession for Bassanio in the argument over the missing ring. He speaks truly when he declares, “I am th’ unhappy subject of these quarrels . . . ” (MV 5.1.238), but this is no more than a prelude to his next sacrificial move:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which, but for him that had your husband’s ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly. (MV 5.1.249–253)

The offer appears princely for a reason. To bind himself again for Bassanio serves the purpose of making the husband beholden to Antonio as he was before Portia intervened in court, this time for whatever marital bliss he may enjoy in the future. It has the subsidiary benefit of his binding himself for Portia’s sake, who now must be equally grateful. And this time Antonio places not his body on the line but his “soul,” the treasure beyond price. That Antonio must have expected such a quarrel over the missing ring only adds to the portrait of him as a calculating man.

Yet through this gesture Portia has again brought Antonio to a reckoning he did not anticipate, proving what I think Shakespeare would insist: that prudence is superior to modern calculation. Just as beyond all necessity she allowed Shylock to stretch out his hand to cut the pound of flesh, she now allows Antonio to replay his role as savior only to discover that his savior Balthasar (“him that had your husband’s ring”) stands before him. His terse response to Portia’s dual revelations—of the clerk’s true identity and the three ships arrived safe in port—“I am dumb” (MV 5.1.280), waves the white flag that the comic ending requires. And it does more. It asserts the secondary nature of the life Antonio represents in Venice to the golden world of Belmont. His “life and living,” a consolation prize of sorts, are all about commerce, but his voice falls on deaf ears as the lovers speak of the approaching joys of marital consummation.

In the 1980 BBC Shakespeare Plays, director Jack Gold chose to end The Merchant of Venice with all of the characters exiting except Antonio who is left alone as the scene fades. The staging is, I believe, entirely appropriate. Take him at this point as you like, isolated or merely secondary, Antonio has suffered a defeat that Shakespeare would have his world understand as essential to the health of the civic order. Unlikely as it may be that he would have been antagonistic to a development, namely the rise of capitalism, that sped so many intelligent, energetic, and enterprising men, even such as Ben Jonson and himself, to positions of fame and influence, Shakespeare nonetheless has taken some pains to subjugate to higher things the qualities, so necessary to that new world, of acquisition and calculation. Important as they are, they are not the basis of civic action or foremost in the order of the soul. When the couples exit the stage in the final scene, they are about to commence the great adventure of marriage, the great dance: physical, sexual, erotic, procreative, and, ultimately, spiritual—a dynamic, living relationship. It represents an order that will produce legitimate offspring, as the lovers know, opposed to the ambivalent state of marriage in Venice where Lancelot must test Old Gobbo to see if he really is his father. More than that, it is an order that, albeit imperfectly, symbolically mirrors the love that permeates the universe itself as Lorenzo’s “sweet harmony” (MV 5.1.57) of music imitates the harmony in the spheres and the order of the immortal soul. From this dance Antonio perforce must be excluded because it is a “life and living” he does not understand (S. Burckhardt 245).9 Shakespeare does not condemn the mercantile life by this exclusion; rather, he places it where it belongs, somewhere far beneath Belmont’s couples, in a world where men advance themselves materially out of a hard necessity, using their wits as one of their chief means. A necessary world it may be, but a poor lens for understanding ultimate matters and for binding men in a lasting city. The play ends with Antonio of Venice in Belmont, a not insignificant figure, but one of ships, merchandise, and money; subsidiary, even marginal with respect to final things. And that is exactly as Shakespeare wants him for the simple reason that to make more of him would be a lie.


 [1]  Quotations from William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller.

[2]  Lewis says, “We suspect that Antonio has barely listened to Salerio’s compelling speech, so little has it affected him” (24).

[3]  Note in Draper what appears to be unintentional but nevertheless supportive of the gold and silver caskets representing, as I contend, the chief activities of Venice the “flood of gold and silver from Peru and Mexico.”

[4]  Lewis continues, “Nowhere in Act I—or, for that matter, the rest of the play – does Antonio come to terms with his “sadness”; nowhere does he admit a plausible cause for the vague, inscrutable feeling he initially describes as preventing him from knowing himself.”

[5]  O’Rourke observes, “Antonio’s status as an exemplary Christian is further clouded by his offer to Bassanio that ‘my person … lie[s] all unlocked to your occasions’ (1.1.138–139). The suggestiveness of Antonio’s metaphor is reinforced by English stereotypes of the sexual behavior of Italians. As Edward Coke asserted, ‘Bugeria is an Italian word . . ..’”

[6]  Tovey correctly points out that Portia was impressed by Bassanio on an earlier visit by qualities that had much more to do with his native gifts than with material ostentation. What is more interesting here, although Tovey herself does not make the point, is that Bassanio thinks too much like a Venetian: riches are the measure of the man.

[7]  O’Rourke does not go on to develop an argument about Shakespeare’s view of fundamental political relations (and hence his view of man) but rather prefers to see the Merchant as an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic play. He is, however, quite clear in his questioning of Antonio as “exemplary Christian,” a point with which I fully concur.

[8]  It is true that Machiavelli preferred the “impetuous” to the “cautious” man in dealing with the strumpet Fortuna, but he also recognizes the good sense of the calculating man who makes provision for Fortuna’s whims in his leisure. Antonio may well be seen to be both: cautious with his ships, yet bold in 4.1.447. See Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Leo Paul de Alvarez (Dallas: University of Dallas Press, 1980), 146–149.

[9]  Burckhardt comments, “In this merchant’s world money is a great good, is life itself.”


Works Cited:

Alvis, John. Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1990. Print.

Auden, W. H. “Belmont and Venice.” In The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Random House. Reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Merchant of Venice, Sylvan Barnet, ed. 1970. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1962. Print.

Benbow, Mark. “Antonio As Elizabethan Hero.” The Colby Library Quarterly, vol. 12, 1976, 156 – 170. Print.

Berger, Harry. 1981. “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited.” Shakespeare Quarterly. vol. 32, no. 2 (Summer 1981), 155 – 162. JSTOR. Web. 30 May 2009.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, vol. 1. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1958. Print.

Burckhardt, Sigurd. “The Merchant of Venice: The Gentle Bond.” ELH, vol. 29, no. 3, (Sept.1962), 239 – 262. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2009.

Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies in The Merchant of Venice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. Print.

Dillingham, William. “Antonio and Black Bile.” Notes and Queries, vol. 4, no. 10, 1957. Print.

Draper, John W. “Shakespeare’s Antonio and the Queen’s Finance.” Neophilologus, vol. 51, no. 2, 1967. Print.

Hyman, Lawrence W. “Rival Lovers in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2 (Spring, 1970), 109 – 116. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2009.

Lewalski, Barbara K. “Biblical Allusion and Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 3 (Summer, 1962), 327 – 343. JSTOR. Web. 26 May 2009.

Lewis, Cynthia. “Antonio and Alienation in The Merchant of Venice.” South Atlantic Review  vol. 48, no. 4 (Nov., 1983), 19 – 31. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2009.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince, trans. Leo Paul de Alvarez. Dallas: University of Dallas Press, 1980. Print.

O’Rourke James. “Racism and Homophobia in “The Merchant of Venice.” ELH, vol. 70, no. 2 (Summer, 2003), 375 – 397. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2009.

Partee, Morriss Henry. “Sexual Testing in The Merchant of Venice.” McNeese Review vol. 32, 1986. 64 – 79. Print.

Patterson Steve. “The Bankruptcy of Homoerotic Amity in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 1 (Spring, 1999), 9 – 32. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice .In The Complete Pelican Shakespeare.

Ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Tovey, Barbara. “The Golden Casket: An Interpretation of The Merchant of Venice.” In Shakespeare as Political Thinker, John Alvis and Thomas G. West, eds. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2000, 262 – 287. Print.


Carl C. Curtis is professor of English Literature at Liberty University.


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