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Shakespeare's Characters: Antonio (The Merchant of Venice)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 8. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Viewing the persons severally, it seems that the piece ought by all means to be called The Jew of Venice. But upon looking further into the principles of dramatic combination, we may easily discover cause why it should rather be named as it is. For if the Jew be the most important person individually, the Merchant is so dramatically. Thus it is the laws of art, not of individual delineation, that entitle Antonio to the pre-eminence, because, however inferior in himself, he is the centre and mainspring of the entire action: without him the Jew, great as he is in himself, had no business there; whereas the converse, if true at all, is by no means true in so great a degree.

Not indeed that the Merchant is a small matter in himself; far from it: he is every way a most interesting and attractive personage; insomuch that even Shylock away, still there were timber enough in him for a good dramatic hero. A peculiar interest attaches to him from the state of mind in which we first see him. He is deeply sad, not knowing wherefore: a dim, mysterious presage of evil weighs down his spirits, as though he felt afar off the coming on of some great calamity; yet this strange unwonted gloom, sweetened with his habitual gentleness and good-nature, has the effect of showing how dearly he is held by such whose friendship is the fairest earthly purchase of virtue.

This boding, presentimental state of mind lends a certain charm to his character, affecting us something as an instance of second-sight, and coalescing with the mind's innate aptitude to the faith that
"powers there are
That touch each other to the quick in modes
Which the gross world no sense hath to perceive,
No soul to dream of."
And it is very considerable that upon spirits such as he even the smiles of fortune often have a strangely saddening effect; for in proportion as they are worthy of them they naturally feel that they are far otherwise, and the sense of so vast a discrepancy between their havings and deservings is apt to fill them with an indefinable oppressive dread jof some reverse wherein present discrepancies shall be fully made up. So that wealth seldom dispenses such warnings save to its most virtuous possessors. And such is Antonio: a kind-hearted, sweet-mannered man; of a large and liberal spirit; affable, generous, and magnificent in his dispositions; patient of trial, indulgent to folly, free where he loves, and frank where he hates; in prosperity modest, in adversity cheerful; craving wealth for the uses of virtue, and as the organs and sinews of friendship, so that the more he is worth, the more he seems worthy his character is one which we never weary of contemplating.

The only blemish we perceive in him is his treatment of Shylock: in this, though we cannot but see that it is much more the fault of the times than of the man, we are forced to side against him; than which it were not easy to allege a stronger case of poetical justice. Yet even this we blame rather as an abuse of himself than of Shylock, and think the less of it as wronging the latter, because, notwithstanding he has such provocations, he avowedly grounds his hate mainly on those very things which make the strongest title to a good man's love.
Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.

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Shylock, Antonio, Salarino and Gaoler. From Shakespeare's comedy of the Merchant of Venice. Illus. Sir James D. Linton.