Antonio is the protagonist and titular merchant in The Merchant of Venice. Antonio incites the central conflict of the play by accepting Shylock’s terms in order to secure a loan. Antonio wants to help Bassanio win Portia, and is willing to do anything to achieve this goal. The intense desire to help his friend is rooted in how much Antonio loves and cherishes Bassanio. Even when it seems that his desire to help his friend is going to lead to a painful and bloody death, Antonio never shows any bitterness or anger. Instead, he calmly accepts his fate and even suggests that he is happy to die for Bassanio’s sake: “Grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you / For herein Fortune shows herself more kind / Than is her custom” (IV.i.257-259). Antonio’s debt to Shylock causes the play’s conflict as other characters try to intervene and help him.
Even though his life is at stake when he cannot repay Shylock’s loan, Antonio remains passive in the central conflict. He does not do much to advocate for himself and repeatedly tells other characters that it is useless to try to change Shylock’s mind. This passive and unassertive nature remains consistent in Antonio’s character throughout the play. He is introduced as a melancholy figure, pondering, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (I.i.1). At the end of the play, Antonio is safe and has much of his fortune restored. However, the accomplishment of his goal is potentially bittersweet. Now that Portia and Bassanio are married, Antonio will likely see less of his friend, and there is no real evidence that he ends the play happier than he began it.