I have always found the title of this particular play problematic as the majority of productions I have seen – and a great deal of criticism – focus predominantly on the character of Shylock. So if Antonio is the actual merchant of Venice, why does he seem to be a comparatively marginal character?
The Name’s the Thing
The Merchant of Venice is a shortened title. Early printed versions of the text give two different titles: The Comical Historie of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice; and The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice with the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Jewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his fleshe and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests. Catchy, huh?
So why the different names and what effect do they have? First off, one must remember that audiences in Shakespeare’s day would have had specific expectations depending on the genre of the play. Broadly speaking, history plays were exactly that – plays based around the grand moments in national or international history, more often than not involving a good war. Tragedies were plays that charted the downfall of a character and customarily ended with the death of the protagonist. Comedies had a much lighter ending (though were by no means light-hearted throughout) and resolved their narratives with marriages between lovers who had been kept apart by the events of the play. You can see how and why this play ends with all the marriages and reunions rather than after the courtroom scene. It was much more effective for a contemporary audience to vilify Shylock and then undermine his importance by ending the play in a distant place. In both dramatic and structural terms, Shylock has been cast out and does not belong anywhere.
So why focus on Antonio rather than Bassanio or one of the other characters?
Because it is the bond between Antonio and Shylock and the complexity of their changing relationship that drives the drama of the play. Whilst the plot focusing on Belmont is intrinsically linked to this relationship (the only reason Antonio and Shylock’s bond exists is because of Bassanio’s desire for Portia), it is still to all intents and purposes a subplot, and the dramatic climax of the play is certainly the courtroom scene.
More interestingly, by foregrounding Antonio in the title, Shakespeare prioritises two of the key themes of the play: religion and religious conflict; and the complexity of love (a far more complex concept in Early-Modern times1. The themes of religion and love are much too complex to deal with here and so will be the subject of future posts.) Were Shylock the protagonist of the play then a very different set of themes would be prioritised.
Despite being a comedy, we can feel little else but sympathy for Antonio by the end of the play. Not only did he risk his life for Antonio, he is marginalised at the end whilst all the other Christian characters are married off and happy. Yes his ships have returned, but that is little consolation for losing everything else that is important to him.
As a result, Shakespeare ends his comedy in a much bleaker way than we perhaps appreciate, which is a relatively common device he uses and one which, to my mind, frequently goes unnoticed. The RSC’s production of the play with Patrick Stewart as Shylock touched on this, with a ubiquitous sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the play. Yet I think focusing on the title does more than this. The supposed happiness of the couples at the end is undermined by the isolation of Antonio, and his declared sadness in the opening line of the play is unchanged by the end. I believe that this circular structure reflects both the cyclical nature of religious conflict (one need only look at a newspaper to see modern examples of this) but also the inescapability of one’s character. Antonio will always be sad; Shylock will always be vengeful; Bassanio will always be a spendthrift and so on.
Perhaps therefore the play is about character above all else. We can superficially change our characters, but deep down we are who we are, and Antonio is destined to forever be simply the Merchant of Venice.