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,
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,

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,
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.

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.

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:

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
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)

That shall be racked, even to the uttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia.
Go, presently inquire, and so will I,
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.

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.

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.

Commend me to your honorable wife.
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.

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,
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.

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

[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.”

[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.

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.

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.

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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