Death and Love in The Merchant of Venice
Everyone loves a martyr. He's that guy who not only suffered but died for his cause, his passion, his love. Bassanio may not be the most worthy cause to die for, but in Act IV of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is resigned to do so. In his final words before Shylock is set to extract his pound of flesh, Antonio has abandoned efforts to prevent his punishment and assures Bassanio that the deed must be done for the benefit of all. Despite the grisly and morbid nature of the procedure, Antonio has many reasons to die under such circumstances.
This is the only way out. Antonio devotedly loves a man who cannot return the affections with the same intensity. Bassanio's love which rightfully belongs to Antonio is shared with Portia, the wife. And who is to compete with the love a man has for his wife? Antonio tells Bassanio, "I am arm'd and well prepar'd," in speaking of his impending death (IV.1.264). He has known that eventually someone would have to be removed from this triangle and he is ready to be the one. In dying he need not take part in conflicts for Bassanio's affections. As the third wheel in a marriage, Antonio would be the source of strife for Portia, seeing as she would have to vie for her husband's love and eventually, the unhappiness of his marriage would cause Bassanio to resent Antonio. But dying ensures him the affections he wants without the pain and bitterness of rejection.
While Antonio is able to see the advantages of martyrdom, he must convince Bassanio that as such a gracious and extraordinary friend, he is willing, even happy to die for him. Humility, is the natural and subtle way to impress, so Antonio speaks of how he is not only helping a friend, but really being spared the misery of longevity. He tells his friend,
Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you;
For herein Fortune shows herself more kind
Than is her custom. It is still her use
To let the wretched man outlive his wealth,
To view with hollow eye and wrinkled brow
An age of poverty; from which ling'ring penance
Of such misery doth she cut me off. (IV.1.266-272)
How noble of him to not feel sorry for himself, to not blame Bassanio for his fate, to look at the bright side of life, even when faced with death. Never was there such a friend so deserving of all the love one has to offer. To Bassanio, it is clear that old age and poverty are nothing to look forward to and his friend will avoid these painful stages of life; however, even more significant is that Antonio will not have to experience these stages alone, as he would, were he to continue living. While being spared the loss of worldly goods and youth, a substantial loss in Venetian standards, he is also being spared the loss of Bassanio to Portia.
Once Bassanio is assured of Antonio's noble, selfless love, it is time to flaunt to Portia how much more meaningful his...