SHAKESPEARE AS ANTONIO, THE MERCHANT
No one, so far as I know, has yet tried to identify Antonio, the
Merchant of Venice, with Shakespeare, and yet Antonio is Shakespeare
himself, and Shakespeare in what to us, children of an industrial
civilization, is the most interesting attitude possible. Here in Antonio
for the first time we discover Shakespeare in direct relations with real
life, as real life is understood in the twentieth century. From Antonio
we shall learn what Shakespeare thought of business men and business
methods--of our modern way of living. Of course we must be on our guard
against drawing general conclusions from this solitary example, unless
we find from other plays that Antonio's attitude towards practical
affairs was indeed Shakespeare's. But if this is the case, if
Shakespeare has depicted himself characteristically in Antonio, how
interesting it will be to hear his opinion of our money-making
civilization. It will be as if he rose from the dead to tell us what he
thinks of our doings. He has been represented by this critic and by that
as a master of affairs, a prudent thrifty soul; now we shall see if this
monstrous hybrid of tradesman-poet ever had any foundation in fact.
The first point to be settled is: Did Shakespeare reveal himself very
ingenuously and completely in Antonio, or was the "royal merchant" a
mere pose of his, a mood or a convention? Let us take Antonio's first
words, the words, too, which begin the play:
"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 it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself."
It is this very sadness that makes it easy for us to know Shakespeare,
even when he disguises himself as a Venetian merchant. A little later
and Jaques will describe and define the disease as "humorous
melancholy"; but here it is already a settled habit of mind.
Antonio then explains that his sadness has no cause, and incidentally
attributes his wealth to fortune and not to his own brains or endeavour.
The modern idea of the Captain of Industry who enriches others as well
as himself, had evidently never entered into Shakespeare's head.
Salarino says Antonio is "sad to think upon his merchandise"; but
"Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it.
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place: nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad."
This tone of modest gentle sincerity is Shakespeare's habitual tone from
about his thirtieth year to the end of his life: it has the accent of
unaffected nature. In bidding farewell to Salarino Antonio shows us the
exquisite courtesy which Shakespeare used in life. Salarino, seeing
Bassanio approaching, says:
"I would have stayed till I had made you merry,
If worthier friends had not prevented me."
"Your worth is very dear in my regard.
I take it, your own business calls on you,
And you embrace the occasion to depart."
More characteristic still is the dialogue between Gratiano and Antonio
in the same scene. Gratiano, the twin-brother surely of Mercutio, tells
Antonio that he thinks too much of the things of this world, and warns
"They lose it that do buy it with much care."
"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one."
Every one who has followed me so far will admit that this is
Shakespeare's most usual and most ingenuous attitude towards life; "I do
not esteem worldly possessions," he says; "life itself is too transient,
too unreal to be dearly held." Gratiano's reflection, too, is
Shakespeare's, and puts the truth in a nutshell:
"They lose it that do buy it with much care."
We now come to the most salient peculiarity in this play. When Bassanio,
his debtor, asks him for more money, Antonio answers:
"My purse, my person, my extremes! means,
Lie all unlocked to your occasions."
And, though Bassanio tells him his money is to be risked on a romantic
and wild adventure, Antonio declares that Bassanio's doubt does him more
wrong than if his friend had already wasted all he has, and the act
closes by Antonio pressing Bassanio to use his credit "to the
uttermost." Now, this contempt of money was, no doubt, a pose, if not a
habit of the aristocratic society of the time, and Shakespeare may have
been aping the tone of his betters in putting to show a most lavish
generosity. But even if his social superiors encouraged him in a
wasteful extravagance, it must be admitted that Shakespeare betters
their teaching. The lord was riotously lavish, no doubt, because he had
money, or could get it without much trouble; but, put in Antonio's
position, he would not press his last penny on his friend, much less
strain his credit "to the uttermost" for him as Antonio does for
Bassanio. Here we have the personal note of Shakespeare: "Your
affection," says the elder man to the younger, "is all to me, and
money's less than nothing in the balance. Don't let us waste a word on
it; a doubt of me were an injury!" But men will do that for affection
which they would never do in cool blood, and therefore one cannot help
asking whether Shakespeare really felt and practised this extreme
contempt of wealth? For the moment, if we leave his actions out of the
account, there can be, I think, no doubt about his feelings. His dislike
of money makes him disfigure reality. No merchant, it may fairly be
said, either of the sixteenth century or the twentieth, ever amassed or
kept a fortune with Antonio's principles. In our day of world-wide
speculation and immense wealth it is just possible for a man to be a
millionaire and generous; but in the sixteenth century, when wealth was
made by penurious saving, by slow daily adding of coin to coin,
merchants like this Antonio were unheard of, impossible.
Moreover all the amiable characters in this play regard money with
unaffected disdain; Portia no sooner hears of Shylock's suit than she
"Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault."
And if we attribute this outburst to her love we must not forget that,
when it comes to the test in court, and she holds the Jew in her hand
and might save her gold, she again reminds him:
"Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee."
A boundless generosity is the characteristic of Portia, and Bassanio,
the penniless fortune-hunter, is just as extravagant; he will pay the
Jew's bond twice over, and,
"If that will not suffice,
I will be bound to pay it ten times o'er,
On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart."
It may, of course, be urged that these Christians are all prodigal in
order to throw Shylock's avarice and meanness into higher light; but
that this disdain of money is not assumed for the sake of any artistic
effect will appear from other plays. At the risk of being accused of
super-subtlety, I must confess that I find in Shylock himself traces of
Shakespeare's contempt of money; Jessica says of him:
"I have heard him swear
To Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen,
That he would rather have Antonio's flesh
Than twenty times the value of the sum
That he did owe him."
Even Shylock, it appears, hated Antonio more than he valued money, and
this hatred, though it may have its root in love of money, half redeems
him in our eyes. Shakespeare could not imagine a man who loved money
more than anything else; his hated and hateful usurer is more a man of
passion than a Jew.
The same prodigality and contempt of money are to be found in nearly all
Shakespeare's plays, and, curiously enough, the persons to show this
disdain most strongly are usually the masks of Shakespeare himself. A
philosophic soliloquy is hardly more characteristic of Shakespeare than
a sneer at money. It should be noted, too, that this peculiarity is not
a trait of his youth chiefly, as it is with most men who are
free-handed. It rather seems, as in the case of Antonio, to be a
reasoned attitude towards life, and it undoubtedly becomes more and more
marked as Shakespeare grows older. Contempt of wealth is stronger in
Brutus than in Antonio; stronger in Lear than in Brutus, and stronger in
Timon than in Lear.
But can we be at all certain that Antonio's view of life in this respect
was Shakespeare's? It may be that Shakespeare pretended to this
generosity in order to loosen the purse-strings of his lordly patrons.
Even if his motive for writing in this strain were a worthy motive, who
is to assure us that he practised the generosity he preached? When I
come to his life I think I shall be able to prove that Shakespeare was
excessively careless of money; extravagant, indeed, and generous to a
fault. Shakespeare did not win to eminence as a dramatist without
exciting the envy and jealousy of many of his colleagues and
contemporaries, and if these sharp-eyed critics had found him in drama
after drama advocating lavish free-handedness while showing meanness or
even ordinary prudence in his own expenditure, we should probably have
heard of it as we heard from Greene how he took plays from other
playwrights. But the silence of his contemporaries goes to confirm the
positive testimony of Ben Jonson, that he was of "an open and free
nature,"--openhanded always, and liberal, we may be sure, to a fault. In
any case, the burden of proof lies with those who wish us to believe
that Shakespeare was "a careful and prudent man of business," for in a
dozen plays the personages who are his heroes and incarnations pour
contempt on those who would lock "rascal counters" from their friends,
and, in default of proof to the contrary, we are compelled to assume
that he practised the generosity which he so earnestly and sedulously
praised. At least it will be advisable for the moment to assume that he
pictured himself as generous Antonio, without difficulty or conscious
But this Antonio has not only the melancholy, courtesy and boundless
generosity of Shakespeare; he has other qualities of the master which
need to be thrown into relief.
First of all, Antonio has that submission to misfortune, that
resignation in face of defeat and suffering which we have already seen
as characteristics of Richard II. The resignation might almost be called
saintly, were it not that it seems to spring rather from the natural
melancholy and sadness of Shakespeare's disposition; "the world is a
hard, all-hating world," he seems to say, "and misery is the natural lot
of man; defeat comes to all; why should I hope for any better fortune?"
At the very beginning of the trial he recognizes that he is certain to
lose; Bassanio and Gratiano appeal to the Duke for him; but he never
speaks in his own defence; he says of his opponent at the outset:
My patience to his fury, and am arm'd
To suffer, with a quietness of spirit,
The very tyranny and rage of his."
and again he will not contend, but begs the Court,
".... with all brief and plain conveniency
Let me have judgement and the Jew his will."
Even when Bassanio tries to cheer him,
"What, man, courage yet!
The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all,
Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood."
"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 better be employed, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph."
He will not be saved: he gives himself at once to that "sweet way of
despair" which we have found to be the second Richard's way and
Just as we noticed, when speaking of Posthumus in "Cymbeline," that
Shakespeare's hero and <i>alter ego</i> is always praised by the other
personages of the drama, so this Antonio is praised preposterously by
the chief personages of the play, and in the terms of praise we may see
how Shakespeare, even in early manhood, liked to be considered. He had
no ambition to be counted stalwart, or bold, or resolute like most young
males of his race, much less "a good hater," as Dr. Johnson confessed
himself: he wanted his gentle qualities recognized, and his intellectual
gifts; Hamlet wished to be thought a courtier, scholar, gentleman; and
here Salarino says of Antonio:
"A kinder gentleman treads not the earth,"
and he goes on to tell how Antonio, when parting from Bassanio, had
"eyes big with tears":
"Turning his face, he put his hand behind him,
And with affection wondrous sensible
He wrung Bassanio's hand; and so they parted."
This Antonio is as tender-hearted and loving as young Arthur. And
Lorenzo speaks of Antonio to Portia just as Salarino spoke of him:
"<i>Lor</i>. But if you knew to whom you show this honour.
How true a gentleman you send relief,
How dear a lover of my lord your husband,
I know you would be prouder of the work
Than customary bounty can enforce you."
and finally Bassanio sums Antonio up in enthusiastic superlatives:
"The dearest friend to me, the kindest man,
The best-condition'd and unwearied spirit
In doing courtesies, and one in whom
The ancient Roman honour more appears
Than any that draws breath in Italy."
It is as a prince of friends and most courteous gentleman that Antonio
acts his part from the beginning to the end of the play with one notable
exception to which I shall return in a moment. It is astonishing to find
this sadness, this courtesy, this lavish generosity and contempt of
money, this love of love and friendship and affection in any man in
early manhood; but these qualities were Shakespeare's from youth to old
I say that Antonio was most courteous to all with one notable exception,
and that exception was Shylock.
It has become the custom on the English stage for the actor to try to
turn Shylock into a hero; but that was assuredly not Shakespeare's
intention. True, he makes Shylock appeal to the common humanity of both
Jew and Christian.
"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew
hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you
tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not
die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
But if Shakespeare was far in advance of his age in this intellectual
appreciation of the brotherhood of man; yet as an artist and thinker and
poet he is particularly contemptuous of the usurer and trader in other
men's necessities, and therefore, when Antonio meets Shylock, though he
wants a favour from him, he cannot be even decently polite to him. He
begins by saying in the third scene of the first act:
"Although I neither lend nor borrow
By taking nor by giving of excess,
Yet to supply the ripe wants of my friend,
I'll break a custom."
The first phrase here reminds me of Polonius: "neither a borrower nor a
lender be." When Shylock attempts to defend himself by citing the way
Jacob cheated Laban, Antonio answers contemptuously "The devil can cite
Scripture for his purpose." Shylock then goes on:
"Signor Antonio, many a time and oft,
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still, I have borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me mis-believer, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say,
'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so
You that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?'"
Antonio answers this in words which it would be almost impossible to
take for Shakespeare's because of their brutal rudeness, were it not, as
we shall see later, that Shakespeare loathed the Jew usurer more than
any character in all his plays. Here are the words:
"<i>Ant</i>. I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou will lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty."
Then Shylock makes peace, and proposes his modest penalty. Bassanio
"You shall not seal to such a bond for me:
I'll rather dwell in my necessity."
Antonio is perfectly careless and content: he says:
"Content, i' faith: I'll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in the Jew."
Antonio's heedless trust of other men and impatience are qualities most
foreign to the merchant; but are shown again and again by Shakespeare's
Perhaps it will be well here to prove once for all that Shakespeare did
really hate the Jew. In the first place he excites our sympathy again
and again for him on the broad grounds of common humanity; but the
moment it comes to a particular occasion he represents him as hateful,
even where a little thought would have taught him that the Jew must be
at his best. It is a peculiarity of humanity which Shakespeare should
not have overlooked, that all pariahs and outcasts display intense
family affection; those whom the world scouts and hates are generally at
their noblest in their own homes. The pressure from the outside, Herbert
Spencer would say, tends to bring about cohesion among the members of
the despised caste. The family affection of the Jew, his kindness to his
kindred, have become proverbial. But Shakespeare admits no such kindness
in Shylock: when his daughter leaves Shylock one would think that
Shakespeare would picture the father's desolation and misery, his sorrow
at losing his only child; but here there is no touch of sympathy in
".... I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her
ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!"
But there is even better proof than this: when Shylock is defeated in
his case and leaves the Court penniless and broken, Shakespeare allows
him to be insulted by a gentleman. Shylock becomes pathetic in his
defeat, for Shakespeare always sympathized with failure, even before he
came to grief himself:
"<i>Shy</i>. Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live."
"<i>Por</i>. What mercy can you render him, Antonio?
<i>Gra</i>. A halter gratis; nothing else for God's sake."
And then Antonio offers to "quit the fine for one-half his goods."
Utterly broken now, Shylock says:
"I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.
<i>Duke</i>. Get thee gone, but do it.
<i>Gra<i/>. In christening shalt thou have two godfathers:
Had I been judge, thou should'st have had ten more,
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font."
A brutal insult from a gallant gentleman to the broken Jew: it is the
only time in all Shakespeare when a beaten and ruined man is so
Antonio, it must be confessed, is a very charming sketch of Shakespeare
when he was about thirty years of age, and it is amusing to reflect that
it is just the rich merchant with all his wealth at hazard whom he picks
out to embody his utter contempt of riches. The "royal merchant," as he
calls him, trained from youth to barter, is the very last man in the
world to back such a venture as Bassanio's--much less would such a man
treat money with disdain. But Shakespeare from the beginning of the play
put himself quite naively in Antonio's place, and so the astounding
antinomy came to expression.