The Analysis of Antonio’s Character
Length: 1589 words (4.5 double-spaced pages)
The lines selected for analysis are Act II, Scene I, lines 277-291, when Antonio is trying to reassure Sebastian that killing his brother—the King of Naples—is a good idea and well worth the effort. As the reader knows, Antonio usurped his brother, Prospero, and became the Duke of Milan. This sets the stage for his attitude towards Sebastian’s wanting to kill his brother, King Alonso. Because of Antonio’s past actions he sees nothing wrong with getting rid of a family member for personal gain, but his reasons for doing so began at a young age and have been etched into his brain. Antonio’s psychological depth reveals that he is a man jealous of his brother’s rightful power, and stemming from that is his insecurity and lust for power wherever he may find it (in this case, having power over Sebastian). Antonio is not a good person, has few conscientious thoughts, and is now trying to convince his companion to follow his lead. If Antonio’s brother, Prospero, was to hear the selected lines, he would say that the only time Antonio thinks about performing acts that will get him power, by eliminating those who currently have it, is when it is to his advantage. He would say that Antonio devises plans to get rid of leaders when they are at a disadvantage, and he at an advantage, because he doesn’t feel that he could succeed otherwise—his insecurities kicking in. I don’t think Shakespeare agrees with Antonio, and there are two examples in the play to support that.
In response to Sebastian’s question about whether his conscience would bother him after committing fratricide, Antonio replies, “Ay, sir, where lies that? If `twere a kibe / `Twould put me to my slipper…” meaning that if his conscience was a small sore on the heel of his foot (a kibe), it would drive him to wear comfortable shoes but it would certainly not disrupt his life or stop him from doing what he’s doing. This shows Antonio to be a cold-hearted man, one who is able to quiet that little voice inside his head and push it to the back of his brain and continue with his terrible acts. In the next thought, he says, “…but I feel not this deity in my bosom,” admitting he doesn’t feel the tug of a conscience in his heart.
Antonio then changes direction for a minute and starts to focus on Sebastian, rather than his own feelings. His words in the next few lines become insulting to the sleeping Alonso, and persuasive and manipulative to Sebastian—all appropriate for his jealous-of-those-with-power feelings, and his calculating, scheming ways. He begins by insulting King Alonso, saying, “Here lies your brother / No better than the earth he lies upon,” trying to coax Sebastian into feeling that killing his brother is somehow justified because he happens to be sleeping, and he is therefore unfit to be king (irrational logic, but it works for him). By trying to persuade Sebastian to do what he says, Antonio will feel power over another person, something he wasn’t able to achieve knowing his brother was heir to the throne. But he then says, “Whom I with this obedient steel … can lay to bed forever,” which is interesting because he does not say that Sebastian would kill Alonso with the weapon—as one would think, because he is Sebastian’s brother and Sebastian would be doing it for his own benefit—but he says he (Antonio) would do it. This could show Antonio getting a little over-zealous with the thought of killing a high-ranking official for his own twisted means. Perhaps the use of the word ‘obedient’ is a nod to his need for others to do as he says, and obey him? It’s almost as if Antonio has now taken this on as his own project and wishes to kill Alonso himself. He is reliving the act of bringing a leader out of power, or fulfilling the act of killing the leader, which was never realized with his brother. He sums up his speech by saying “for all the rest / They’ll take suggestion as a cat laps milk; / They’ll tell the clock to any business that / We say befits the hour.” By this he means that because the other members of their clan are sleeping, when they awake to find Alonso dead the two culprits can say that they fell asleep and when they awoke Alonso had already been killed. By lying like this Antonio is abusing the relationships he has with the other men (Gonzalo, Adrian and Francisco, among others)—telling them what they would of course believe to be true, why would they doubt Antonio?—and getting away with, literally, murder. It’s another example of Antonio needing power over others, and like the ability to achieve it—though in small, weak ways. He’s saying it’s fool-proof; when they go to court the other men will say whatever Antonio and Sebastian tell them about the murder—things that are false, to cover themselves. Throughout this speech the reader can see that Antonio is a cold-hearted man with issues of insecurity and the need for power, and the want for someone to be below him, as he has had to be below the one with power in the past.
As Prospero was a victim of Antonio’s ambitious mind—when Antonio pushed him out to sea in a small boat so that Antonio could be the Duke of Milan—he would not support his brother in this situation. He would say that Antonio has these ideas of overthrowing the leader because he is not the immediate heir to the throne—‘the heir and the spare’ is a common term when it comes to brothers vying for the throne, and in this case, Antonio was the ‘spare’—and is jealous of those who rightly are. Perhaps Antonio’s over-ambitious nature and insecurity makes him believe that he should be the duke (as nothing more than a confidence booster), and will eliminate anybody who gets in his way. Also, Prospero might note that he was taken away at night—when he was sleeping, and vulnerable. The fact that Antonio is persuading Sebastian to kill his brother when he is also sleeping could indicate that Antonio does these things when he is at an advantage. He does not take on his opponent when it is fair—when both have weapons, or even when both are conscious—because he may feel he has less of a chance of succeeding (his insecurities flare up again!). Trying to overthrow both the king and the duke when they are sleeping could be seen as a sign of cowardliness; a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy to complete a task when the scales are even, so the task must be done when the scales are tipped. Antonio only commits these acts when they are in his favor.
I believe Shakespeare would disagree with Antonio. While it makes for a compelling plot twist, Shakespeare would acknowledge that what Antonio was planning to do was wrong, that it shouldn’t happen, and does not agree with it. He may say it would be a cowardly move; one that only the insecure would make. If it had to be done, at least do it in a grand manner—have some sort of a duel, a sword fight, something that isn’t killing a man when he is asleep and unable to defend himself. In the event of killing one’s brother for one’s own personal gain, Shakespeare’s conscience would take over and confirm that it is not the right thing to do, and should not be done. There are two significant events in the play that show Shakespeare doesn’t agree with Antonio’s decision. First, after trying so hard to bring about Alonso’s death, Antonio’s plan is foiled when Gonzalo wakes up, just as Antonio is about to strike Alonso. The second point is at the end of the play, when Antonio is the only character who does not receive Prospero’s forgiveness. I think that showing how Antonio does not earn his brother’s forgiveness is important because it portrays him as the only one without redemption. It seems that Shakespeare is showing his distaste for Antonio’s ideas by having these events happen to him.
From the analysis of the speech, the reader can see that Antonio is a man who is out only for his own personal gain, who has little conscience when it comes to killing a man—and both traits may have stemmed from his feelings of jealousy towards his brother, the heir, and his consequent feelings of insecurities and inadequacy. His language—sometimes insulting, sometimes compelling, mostly manipulating—confirms that he does not have a good soul. His psychological state—feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and jealousy, and the inability to deal with them—only fuels his desire to do away with Alonso. From Prospero’s response, the reader can see that he would disagree with his brother’s choice and reasoning—that only a jealous man would try to overthrow the king, and only an insecure man would do it when the king was sleeping. From Shakespeare’s point of view, the reader can see that he also disagrees with Antonio, as it would be, among other things, immoral and wrong to eliminate not only one’s king, but one’s brother (the events in the play confirm that). These criterion show that Antonio is, put simply, a bad man with a bad conscience—these problems stemming from his youth and years of feeling second best to, and jealous of, his brother—and one who will stop at nothing to achieve what he wants.