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Discuss Shakespeare's presentation of Antonio in 'The Merchant of Venice'

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Introduction

English Essay Merchant of Venice Discuss Shakespeare's presentation of Antonio in 'The Merchant of Venice'. Shakespeare's portrayal of Antonio in 'The Merchant of Venice' is decidedly open to interpretation, as his melancholic nature is revealed at the start of the play and foreshadows his later bad luck, but a specific reasoning behind it is never given. For an Elizabethan audience, Antonio provides the perfect Christian protagonist to Shylock's evil Jewish antagonist, although our modern reception of him is much more diverse and as such provides the audience with a greater sense of suspense concerning his fate, and enigma surrounding his personality. Arguably this was Shakespeare's intention as Antonio is perceived as being the eponymous merchant and much of the play revolves around his plight, yet he appears in very few scenes himself, and the only real idea we have of him is that portrayed by his admirers (friends and fellow Christians) and his rivals (Shylock); the audience is left to question his integrity. The Italian setting for the play seems typical of Shakespearian romantic-comedies, yet the inclusion of the bitter feud between the Christian and the Jew interrupts the course of love, elevating the dramatic impact of the play and making it more of a tragedy. ...read more.

Middle

This contrast of these two characters is considered throughout the play as an extended metaphor. The ambiguity of which is the more likeable may even have reached a headstrong Elizabethan audience as Shylock's characterisation changes so rapidly, perhaps as a result of his years of torment at the hands of "fawning publicans". This description of Antonio, whilst maintaining his decent and virtuous image, provides deeper insight into his character and hints at his un-Christian behaviour at the trial scene when he receives no mercy in consequence of his "rendering none". Shylock's vicious and gleeful urges of Antonio to "look to his bond" as rumours about his ships reach Venice paint him as an equally foul character, willing to go to extreme lengths to keep his pride intact; he "will have the law". His speeches rarely veer into poetic imagery as the Christian characters have a tendency to do; his sentences remain short and sharp, emphasising his physical and mental isolation from the other characters who "rate" him. At times he seems to spit out his words, especially insults of "cut-throat dog" and bitter and sardonic responses to his cruel down-sizing: "nay, take my life, pardon not that!" ...read more.

Conclusion

The main issue in modern society however, lies with the cruel and vicious subjugation of the Jew and his compatriots (even "gentle" Jessica finds it difficult interacting with the Christians even after her conversion) and Antonio's reasons for this deep-seated hatred. Shakespeare is purposefully vague in his presentation of the argument as whilst the Christian success is a prerequisite to satisfy an Elizabethan audience, he emphasises the humanistic side of Shylock so that we do not view him as a one-dimensional gaudy villain, but a complete human being with "organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions" just like everyone else. Antonio provides the perfect foil to this debate and as such performs a crucial role in the play. Whether viewed as a "moral and upright" Christian, or a hedonistic, lonely man "grow[ing] exceedingly strange", Antonio is certainly an intriguing dramatic device used to explore the importance of friendship and mercy; he legitimises his place in Venice at the play's conclusion and ensures that he will live a "content" life, but not without destroying Shylock's happiness first. He maintains an eerie presence which resonates throughout the play, subtly influencing the actions of others; Shakespeare's presentation of him is purposefully vague so that we make up our own minds about him. ...read more.

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