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Examination Questions on The Merchant of Venice

Question: Discuss Antonio's character and his part in the play.

Answer: As to Antonio's character, we learn as much from what is said about him as from what he says himself. As is natural for one of his rank and wealth, he is surrounded by friends; but, in spite of the opinion of Gervinus, I can see no reason for regarding any one of them as merely a fawning parasite. They never speak of him except in terms of warmest love and esteem, as when Salanio says, "The good Antonio, the honest Antonio, O that I had a title good enough to keep his name company!" And when the news of the bad fortune of his ventures reaches them, they all express genuine sorrow; but on his account, not their own. Judging by the light given us in the play, he seems to have been a man somewhat advanced in years, with no immediate family, but with a nature craving affection. In this position he has taken to his heart his young kinsman, Bassanio, for whom he cherishes a love as tender as ever father bore for son, or an older for a younger brother.

In the opening words of the play he confesses to a sadness for which he will give no reason; and on further inquiry, the only discoverable cause lies in the fact that he will have to resign his position as first in Bassanio's affections, since the latter is about to commence his suit for the hand of some unknown fair one. Yet he shows himself thoroughly unselfish in his devotion, and is even willing to violate all business principles and borrow money at interest, in order to lend Bassanio the money wherewith to purchase his outfit. Antonio shows not a little pride and belief in his own independent strength in the calm indifference with which he treats the dangerous condition inserted in the bond by the Jew; and his imprudence in this particular, combined with his former harsh treatment of Shylock, came near resulting in his utter destruction.

Indeed, it is hard to reconcile his harshness toward Shylock with his general disposition and deportment. Still, there are extenuating reasons for his feelings of hostility. In the time in which he was supposed to live, the Jews were looked upon universally with abhorrence and contempt; the taking of interest was regarded as being in direct opposition with all Christian principles; and the individual character of Shylock was such as to arouse aversion in even the most tolerant.

Still, the treatment he received from Antonio was unjustifiable; and Antonio had to suffer for it. But in spite of this grave blemish, the merchant, with his grave kindliness, constancy, and unselfishness, is one who exacts admiration and esteem from all.

Considering the play as an organized whole, Antonio occupies the central position: hence the title of the play. As an individual, or as a dramatic personage, he excites far less interest than either Shylock or Portia; but it is nevertheless he who furnishes the ground for the meeting and contest of these two great forces in the play. It has well been said that Shakespeare has made this character verge on the neutral, else his overpowering hold upon our sympathies would have prevented us from duly appreciating the other influences at work in the play. But though he is thus the Centre of the organic structure, his presence in the play is not due solely to a dramatic necessity. Through his instrumentality Shakespeare teaches us one of the gravest of lessons the beauty, durability, and power of true friendship.

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How to cite this article:
Miller, Bessie Porter. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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