The Reading Room

A Tale of Two Antonios

The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night both end in double marriages, featuring the kind of comedy Disney would later seize upon: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. But what of the other boy? What about boy who doesn’t get boy? This plot sounds more like the Disney of today’s generation which has begun to challenge conventional relationships, stereotypes, and gender expectations. While this gender sensitivity may be new for Disney, it is old hat for Shakespeare and features prominently in both Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice
Both dark comedies platform an overwhelmingly happy ending that wallpapers over the darker underbelly of the problem comedies. In both plays, loyalty is repaid with loneliness. The tales of the two Antonios makes one wonder whether the price of unrequited loyalty and love is worth paying. 
Metaphors of money, price, cost, and contracts run throughout Merchant and scholarship has long obsessed over the play’s financial language, continuing to beat what is now a very dead horse. I will spare you and the horse and skip to the more interesting question: why should anyone be loyal? Does loyalty pay or is it better to be a Bassanio or Portia, looking after one’s own interests at the expense of everyone else’s? Note that Bassanio’s selfishness is at Antonio’s literal expense, as it is Antonio’s wealth (and ultimately, his life) that underwrites Bassanio’s courtship. Antonio bookends the play, ending it almost as he began: sad and lonely, but wealthy. In Merchant’s opening lines, Antonio admits to his friends 
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. (1.1.1-7)
Antonio is sad and claims not to know why. Not only does his dejection perplex and annoy him, but it annoys his friends who are tired of his moping and tell him as much. His friends attempt to uncover the source of Antonio’s grief, blaming the uncertainty of his wealth-laden ships and precarity of his business ventures, but Antonio swiftly dismisses such superficial suggestions. He eloquently explains that his “ventures are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place . . . Therefore [his] merchandise makes [him] not sad” (1.1.43-6). When his friends suggest Antonio is in love, he quickly responds, “Fie, fie!”, a bit too eager to dismiss the notion (1.1.48). When love is brought into play, the cool-headed analysis Antonio applied to his investment portfolio moments earlier fails him and he swaps explication for exclamation. 
Before he can be interrogated further, Bassanio enters with his hand out for money, knowing Antonio will give it without much fight. Bassanio begins by buttering Antonio up, acknowledging that “to you Antonio / I owe the most in money and in love.” Antonio responds with unbounded adoration, assuring Bassanio “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlock’d to your occasions” (1.1.137-46) Here, a line that flirts with the homoerotic, as Antonio signs his body and money over to Bassanio’s whims, will eventually turn homicidal. Antonio’s pledging of his person turns literal in Shylock’s hands and Shylock swiftly monetizes Antonio’s body to create a contract that ensures the Christian’s death, should Antonio default on his loan. After hearing Antonio’s love pledge, Bassanio asks for money, promising (as most beggars do) that this will be the last time, as he plans to use this new debt to clear the old (1.1.147-51).
Bassanio promises to repay both debts and yet, at the end of the play, repays neither. Antonio’s loyalty, love, and liquidity are used and abused and Antonio ends the play worse than he began it, though perhaps less sad due to his recent brush with death. Indeed, it is Portia who repays Antonio in full, saving his life through her brilliant court performance and “giv[ing Antonio] life and living” by reporting that his ships, believed to have miscarried, “Are safely come to road” (4.1.306-8). In return, however, he loses a friend and potential lover, now unable to even pretend there may be a homoerotic love between the newly married Bassanio and himself. As Gratiano and Nerissa and Bassanio and Portia walk into marital bliss (after a great deal of verbal foreplay), Antonio – who funded, enabled, and laid down his life for their happiness – is left in the cold, a bystander to their happiness.
Twelfth Night’s Antonio suffers a similar fate at the play’s close. After rescuing Sebastian from a shipwreck, Antonio becomes the model of loyalty, following, helping, and funding Sebastian’s escapades all to be cast aside when Sebastian stumbles into a better opportunity. Like the Venetian Antonio, Twelfth Night’s Antonio also risks his life for his homoerotic love, entering enemy territory and suffering through imprisonment while Sebastian is off for a roll in the hay with his new bride (who actually thinks he is Cesario, Sebastian’s cross-dressed female twin). Antonio’s parting words to Sebastian are as homoerotic as his Venetian counterpart’s, as he hands Sebastian his purse (and person), instructing Sebastian to book a room at the local inn, for “There shall you have me.” The line may not be strictly sexual, but the pun is certainly intended. He not only shelters Sebastian, but funds his love’s taste for luxury, giving him extra money lest Sebastian’s “eye [should] light upon some toy” he desires (3.3.46-50). Both Antonios would give and do nearly anything for their male friends (qua lovers), but their love is never requited to the same degree. The two Antonios end their respective plays isolated and forgotten, forced to witness their loves – whether the love of male friendship or homoerotic love remains up for debate – leave them for shinier (and safer) female partners. 
Their fates call into question whether Aristotelean friendship is worth all of the trouble. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks: “For what use is such prosperity if there is no opportunity for beneficence, which is exercised mainly and in its most commendable form towards friends?” (141). Yet there is a lack of reciprocity between the Antonios as benefactors and the less-than grateful Sebastian and Bassanio as the beneficiaries. Aristotle writes that beneficence benefits both parties, as “the superior [richer] person [gets] more honour, and the person in need more gain, since honour is the reward of virtue and beneficence, while gain is what ministers to need” (160). Yet it is rather unclear that either Antonio gets honor or even gratitude at the end of the plays. All they really get as recompense is loss: loss of friends and funds. This puts Aristotle’s advice on friendship at odds with his writings on oeconomy and wealth acquisition, which calls into question the two Antonios valuation of generosity. Instead of opening purse and person to their spendthrift “friends,” the Antonios might consider learning from Portia who uses her wealth and power to buy love and cement bonds, rather than lose them.