A Dose of Drama:
How Much Humor Can You Take?
Antonio is the namesake of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but in addition to contributing to the title, his constant search for emotional martyrdom adds an air of depth and drama to an otherwise lighthearted and laughable play. Like many of Shakespeare’s best characters, Antonio could easily be overlooked as a mere plot-device. However, upon further inspection, he’s more than just two-dimensional; he has a history, a personality, and a raison d’?tre.
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof ’tis born
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself (I.i.1-7).
The audience never does learn the cause of this depression. Nor, it seems, does Antonio. Many speculate it is foreshadowing of his melancholy to come, while others say it is just a display of Antonio’s default attitude: romantic sadness. His emotions are not those of a cell-bound manic-depressive, but rather those of a large hearted person doting ceaselessly for the unattainable. Why does this open the play? Shakespeare often cleverly manipulated his characters’ actions for the sake of plot revelations. For instance, Shakespeare uses his depression to let Salerio and Solanio question him about his affairs, thus introducing him to the audience. Throughout the play, the repercussions of many adventures fall upon Antonio; his 3,000-ducat debt, and Shylock’s subsequent rancor, as well as the destruction of his ships all must be placed on his shoulders. However, in the end, while everyone else finds love, he is alone. It almost seems that Antonio welcomes these negative events, as they fuel his tears and moans. This is not to say that he is a crybaby, but rather that he does what he can to remain romantically sad.
And mine a sad one (I.i.81-83).
So, if he is not a plot device with legs, what is Antonio?
Although his love interests seem non-existent, Antonio seems to be the lover of the story; he is sensitive, doting, and generous (as well as single!) – all common characteristics of Shakespearean romantics. However, Bassanio, a worthier suitor (he seems to have a more positive look-out on life) takes this role. Antonio is not comic relief, since the Gobbos fill that. Any hatred the audience might feel is directed at Shylock, so the only thing Antonio can pull from the viewers is sympathy. It seems Antonio is there to supply the “dramatic relief.” One can only take so much levity before it becomes nauseating! The Merchant of Venice is categorized as a comedy?perhaps Shakespeare felt he needed to mix up the emotions. And this is true?Antonio’s emotions, if examined, seem to be some of the truest of the play, although few investigate the subtext.
His amity with Bassanio is a close one, worthy of words like ‘love’: “BASSANIO: To you, Antonio / I owe the most in money, and in love (I.i.137-138).” This shows fairly obviously how Bassanio is indebted to Antonio not only in borrowed money, but also in love. Antonio concurs with this a few lines later, saying “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions [needs] (I.i.145-146),” reminding his friend that his money, help, love and help are available to him. The phrasing is interesting though. Saying that his offerings are “unlocked” to him implies that to everyone else, they are locked. Perhaps Bassanio alone can pierce through Antonio’s fog of heavyheartedness. Most male friends, even those in Shakespeare, don’t toss “love” around lightly. While some dismiss it as nothing but word choice, others dig deeper. Homoerotic underplays are cited numerous times throughout the play, and these are worth investigating. First off, the fact that, even with such obvious characterization as “the lover”, Antonio fails in filling that duty could be symbolic of his homosexuality. The correlation is notable between his and Portia’s “world-weariness”, and at first a reader may think the two seem destined to be together?but he remains a bachelor. This leads one to wonder…if he is so in love, and with no woman (for Shakespeare leaves no emotion un-exploited ), who with? However, Bassanio’s love for Portia is genuine, as we see. Antonio’s love for Bassanio is ardent and passionate. He is willing to bear all his suffering at Shylock’s hands for the sake of his friend, and Bassanio declares frequently that he will offer his life en lieu of Antonio’s “pound of flesh.” Again, this could be close friendship, but one must ask oneself?would you give your life up for just any friend?
Some critics opine that Bassanio is bisexual. His offering of his wedding ring to the handsome young “male” lawyers can be inferred as a sign, depending on the view of the two’s relationship. Would it affect the story one way or another? Possibly. It would explain the fervor with which Antonio aids Bassanio, as well as why he remains a bachelor through out the play. This could in turn also explain why Antonio is depressed. His close friend, and possible object of affection, is involved with a far-off woman, to whom he would no doubt make haste, leaving Antonio alone. But he seems to accept his station in the plot — in life. He almost seems to enjoy this pain, like some sort of emotional masochist. He even states this, calling himself the ‘lame lamb of the flock, apt for death’:
I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me;
You cannot be better employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still, and write mine epitaph (IV.i.116-120).
Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteemed above thy life:
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all,
Here to this devil [Shylock], to deliver you (IV.i.294-299).
But even with his worth recognized by Bassanio, Antonio’s overall mood remains unchanged. He is sad, almost anhedonic, in that he never attains any truly positive feelings. This being a comedy, his depression shines through the humor like, as Portia states in act V, a candle in a dark hallway. Were this a drama, he would fit in perfectly. In the grand scheme, Antonio’s sexuality is not the important thing found while wading through the subtext of the play. Whatever they may be, Antonio’s decisions are always tainted, if not full of the goal of further sadness.
So Antonio, the established “dose of drama”, acknowledges that he is best (and most useful plot-wise) when sad, and perhaps subconsciously does what he can do to keep himself this way. And he does: by yearning for a man he can never have, digging himself into debt with Shylock (even when aware of the dangers), and dramatically lamenting, even without a good reason to. While most characters change from beginning to end, Antonio only gains in his gloom. He begins sad, and ends unfulfilled. Portia mentions briefly that his ships have returned safely, but this somewhat artificial (and all too convenient) relief is not what he wants. He wants to remain himself: to remain dejected, forlorn and inconsolable. For if he remains himself, than the play has authentic drama and emotion.
Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice”