Although the play’s title refers to him, Antonio is a rather lackluster character. He emerges in Act I, scene i as a hopeless depressive, someone who cannot name the source of his melancholy and who, throughout the course of the play, devolves into a self-pitying lump, unable to muster the energy required to defend himself against execution. Antonio never names the cause of his melancholy, but the evidence seems to point to his being in love, despite his denial of this idea in Act I, scene i. The most likely object of his affection is Bassanio, who takes full advantage of the merchant’s boundless feelings for him. Antonio has risked the entirety of his fortune on overseas trading ventures, yet he agrees to guarantee the potentially lethal loan Bassanio secures from Shylock. In the context of his unrequited and presumably unconsummated relationship with Bassanio, Antonio’s willingness to offer up a pound of his own flesh seems particularly important, signifying a union that grotesquely alludes to the rites of marriage, where two partners become “one flesh.”
Further evidence of the nature of Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio appears later in the play, when Antonio’s proclamations resonate with the hyperbole and self-satisfaction of a doomed lover’s declaration: “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (III.iii.35–36). Antonio ends the play as happily as he can, restored to wealth even if not delivered into love. Without a mate, he is indeed the “tainted wether”—or castrated ram—of the flock, and he will likely return to his favorite pastime of moping about the streets of Venice (IV.i.113). After all, he has effectively disabled himself from pursuing his other hobby—abusing Shylock—by insisting that the Jew convert to Christianity. Although a sixteenth-century audience might have seen this demand as merciful, as Shylock is saving himself from eternal damnation by converting, we are less likely to be convinced. Not only does Antonio’s reputation as an anti-Semite precede him, but the only instance in the play when he breaks out of his doldrums is his “storm” against Shylock (I.iii.132). In this context, Antonio proves that the dominant threads of his character are melancholy and cruelty.