Character Sketch of Antonio in Merchant of Venice – ICSE Class 10, 9 English
Antonio Temperamental Melancholy
Antonio is a wealthy merchant in the city of Venice. He is a leading citizen, commanding great respect. When he is first introduced to us in the play, he is in a melancholy mood. His friends ask him if he is feeling melancholy because all his ships are at sea, facing all sorts of dangers from storms and from rocks, but he tells them that he is not at all feeling worried about the safety of his ships. He then tells them that his melancholy is something natural to him, something temperamental or inborn. He says that he looks upon this world as the stage of a theater on which every man has to play a part, his own part being that of a sad man. Thus melancholy may be regarded as one of the principal traits of his Character.
Antonio Profound Affection for Bassanio
Another major trait of Antonio’s character is his capacity for friendship and his profound affection for Bassanio. Indeed, the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio is one of the romantic elements in the play because this friendship has been idealized and glorified by Shakespeare. Bassanio had once before taken a loan from Antonio but had not repaid it; and now again he needs money badly. This time he again asks Antonio for a loan. Antonio has no cash in hand at the moment, and yet he would not like to disappoint his friend. He therefore bids Bassanio approach some money-lender in the city and take a loan on his (Antonio’s) behalf. Bassanio approaches Shylock who is a Jew and a professional money lender, and asks for a loan of three thousand ducats in Antonio’s name. Antonio then signs a bond which seems to be potentially dangerous but which Antonio signs, regardless of the danger which it implies. There is in it a clause according to which Shylock would be entitled to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh from nearest his heart in case Antonio fails to repay the loan within a period of three months. Antonio willingly signs this bond to meet the needs of this friend Bassanio; and this act on his part shows how much he loves Bassanio. He is really a friend in need. He is willing to risk his life for the sake of his friend.
Antonio – A Kind-hearted and Accommodating Man
Antonio is a kind-hearted man who lends money to needy people without charging any interest from them. In this respect he offers a striking contrast to Shylock who is a usurer. (A usurer is a money lender who charges excessive rates of interest on the loans which he gives). It is true that Shylock is a professional money-lender and he must, therefore, charge interest on the loans which he gives.
Antonio, on the other hand, is not a money-lender by profession. But the point to note is that Shylock charges unreasonably high rates of interest; and Antonio lends money to people even though he is not a money-lender, and he lends money gratis (that is, without charging any interest). While Shylock is a greedy man, Antonio is not at all greedy. In fact, Antonio is almost indifferent to wealth.
Antonio Religious Intolerance, a Serious Defect in His Character
Although Antonio is a man who wins our respect and admiration because of his fine qualities, yet he also suffers from a serious defect. As a Christian he shows an intolerance towards the Jews. He hates Shylock because Shylock is a usurer but even more because Shylock is a Jew. This religious or racial intolerance on his part somewhat lowers him in our estimation. In fact, Antonio goes out of his way to insult and degrade Shylock. On many occasions he has abused Shylock, and even spat on his clothes. His reason for thus treating Shylock is that Shylock is a usurer and a Jew. And even when he is asking Shylock for a loan, he says that in future also he would abuse him and spit on him. He tells Shylock that he wants a loan from him not as a friend but as an enemy. There was certainly in those days a general prejudice against the Jews; but we would expect a nice man like Antonio to be free from a prejudice of that kind. Antonio is a perfect gentleman but his religious fanaticism is undoubtedly a flaw in his character.
A Deficiency in Antonio Character
Antonio also suffers from a deficiency. He does not have much of a sense of humour. As he is constitutionally a melancholy man, he is unable to laugh much. He cannot enjoy a joke; and he is certainly incapable of making a joke. He does not approve of Gratiano’s flippant and light-hearted talk. Himself a man of few words, he does not approve of Gratiano’s glibness or garrulity (that is, excessive talkativeness). Being a serious-minded man, he is also unable to enjoy such merry-making as torch light, masked processions in which Lorenzo and others take great pleasure. And it also seems that he is incapable of falling in love. When at the outset it is suggested that he may be feeling melancholy because he is in love, he promptly rejects the suggestion, saying; “Fie, fie!”
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