Jason Schneiderman
The Sadness of Antonio
               “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad
                    -The opening line of The Merchant of Venice, spoken by                                 Antonio

             “We come to the text with a question: why is Antonio so sad?
                      -James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry

               “I will argue here that The Merchant deliberately frustrates any possibility of  identification with its characters…
                       -James O’Rourke, “Racism and Homophobia in ‘The                                      Merchant of Venice’”


Antonio, we should remind ourselves,
     is not real.

He is not in the body of the actor    
    or the words on the page,

and yet we return to the question:    
    Why is he sad?

There is no Antonio in the way 
    for instance

there is a homeless man
    outside the subway,

his clothes made out of
    newspapers, folded 

to ribbons and tied into bows.
    We would not 

call him sad.    
    We would call him crazy.

We avoid his eyes, 
    We avoid his stench,

but he is there.
    He is there.

There is no Antonio 
    in the way
    
that there are ten fifth graders
    placed under my tutelage,
    
and brought to a production of 
    Merchant of Venice

because the younger drama class
    always sees 

whatever the Manhattan Summer Shakespeare Group
    is putting on.

The next morning,
    writing earnestly in their journals,

they find themselves
    entirely offended.

As a Jew
    one writes

I was deeply offended
    by the behavior


in the play
    toward Shylock.


The quality of self-righteousness
    is not strained.

I think it was wrong
    writes an athletically gifted blond boy

To be mean to someone
    for his race.


Then he crosses out race
    and writes in

religion. Oh, children.
    This is an easy one.

Not one of them notice
    that Antonio is sad.

Antonio is entirely ignored
    in their journals.

He holds no interest
    for them.

Fine. We can do this.
    I ask what

Shylock is ridiculed 
    for calling out

when Jessica elopes
    and steals her father’s money.

They don’t remember,
    So I direct them in their scripts.

Finally they find it:
    my ducats and my daughter.

I ask them what Lorenzo has taken
    and as the light dawns

one girl answers, 
    His ducats and his daughters!

I say, 
    so the Christians want
    
what they ridicule Shylock 
    for wanting


and slowly, 
    they see the light.

Fifth graders of the world 
unite!

This is their first experience
    of what we used to call

reading against the grain.
    They have never 

read against the grain.
They have never

felt so smart. They have never
    Realized that a text

can contain it’s own critique.
     Fifth graders of the world, 
    
do not spend your summer
    at school camp.

The most childlike of my children
    looks like a porcelain doll

and cries at the drop of a hat.
    He cries because the other children

are mean to him and the children
    are mean to him because 

he treats them with disdain
    and is always about to cry.

As I comfort him 
    for the third time that day

I realize how much less real
    he is to me than Antonio.

At the end of six weeks
    I will deliver this boy

back to the incompetent arms
    of his socially awkward parents

and never consider him again.
    The girl who is being possessed

by puberty, whose legs are ready
    for shaving and whose armpits

are ready for deodorant,
    who hides her face in a stack

of novels that are thinly veiled
    rape fantasies for the barely

pubescent, she too is less real to me
    than Antonio. 

I try to ask about Antonio,
    but their interest

is only in Shylock. When I was
    in fifth grade,

we also read
    Merchant of Venice. 

I was the only Jew in class, 
    and the only student,

who given the choice,
    memorized “The Quality of Mercy”

rather than “I am a Jew.”
    I read the introduction

to our Bedford or Dover or
    Oxford edition

and learned about how Shakespeare
    gave Shylock a humanity

that no other Jew in Renaissance
    Drama even comes close to,

even if that humanity is not entirely
    complete. I learned a passage

that was twice as long,
    and secretly,

I learned the “I am a Jew” speech
    to see what it feels like

to say. When we read 
     the play out loud,

I read Antonio, so I felt it more 
    than the others,

his sadness. Under everything
     you can feel how

he would do anything
    for Bassanio,

And yet, he knew not why he 
    was sad.

These children all love
    Shylock. They can’t see

his racism or his cruelty,
    or rather they think

that powerlessness is panacea,
    because they are powerless

and they believe 
    that to be unable

to hurt another person
     is the same as being good.
    
My assistant tries once more
    to interest 

our children in Antonio,
    to start the conversation

that might lead to Elizabethan
    perceptions of sodomitical

subcultures as they existed
    In early modern Venice,

but without luck. 
    We wonder if our students

Notice how queer we are,    
    and that night 

we joke about creating a 1990s version 
    of Merchant of Venice

that could open with Antonio
    breaking the silence

and conclude with an ACTUP
    demonstration

in which a gender-queer Portia would insists 
     on her right to body modification surgeries,

and a Derridean Jessica
    would deconstruct

the Jewish/Christian binary,
    in addition to dredging up

recovered memories
    of satanic abuse,

at the hands of Shylock.
    We make ourselves laugh,

smug in our knowledge,
    but sad in its failure,

though even that 
     doesn’t quite

resolve the question of why
    Antonio is sad.

Do you remember the homeless man? 

He doesn’t ask me for money,
    nor does he ask anyone.

He sits on the grate, and talks to himself.
    His elaborate costume

is ineluctably real. He is
    real, but he is not

my object of study. He resides
    in himself, and he cannot 

be read with or against the grain.
     I do not talk to him.

He occupies my mind
     for as little time 

as he is in front of me.
     Poor Antonio. 

As I return to my home 
    by train

Antonio occupies my mind.
    He is nowhere at all:

not in the past, 
    not in the body

of the actor,
    not in the history

of Venice
    or England

or America.
    And still

the question returns:
     Why is Antonio sad? 

I look around
    my train,

and there is no one 
     to ask. 
                
 
Found In Volume 43, No. 01
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Jason Schneiderman
About the Author

Jason Schneiderman is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He is the author of Striking Surface (Ashland Poetry Press, 2010) and Sublimation Point (Four Way Books, 2014). He recently completed a doctorate at the Graduate Center of CUNY; his dissertation was awarded the Paul Monette Prize.