Antonio, the false Duke of Milan, is the Machiavellian villain of The Tempest: having usurped, exiled and attempted to kill his brother, Prospero, 20 years ago, in the course of the play he tempts Sebastian to attempt to murder his own brother, King Alonso of Naples.
He is very much in the mould of the stereotypical Italian Machiavel of Renaissance drama: Jacobeans expected Italians to be conniving, two-faced, ambitious plotters with no morals. This is partly because they believed the hotter weather in southern Europe aroused illicit passions, loosened self-control and induced immorality. It was also partly because Italy was the home of the Roman Catholic church, which since the Reformation had become synonymous with corruption, hypocrisy and false religion, according to devout Protestants in England, especially since the reign of Bloody Mary from 1553-1558 and the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had turned most of the English vehemently anti-Catholic. However, it was also partly because Italy was the birthplace of Niccolo Machiavelli, the political philosopher whose manual on government, The Prince, was notorious for arguing that strong rulers needed to transgress the normal moral code in order to keep their grip on power (the Catholic church also banned the book).
Antonio’s Machiavellian nature becomes obvious from his first appearance in Act 1 Scene 1. He blames the innocent sailors for the shipwreck (“Hang, cur, hang you whoreson, insolent noisemaker!”, “We are merely cheated of our lives by drunkards”) and makes a quick exit with Sebastian to try to save his own skin, instead of staying to support King Alonso.
The impression of his villainy is furthered by the imagery his brother uses to describe him in Act 1 Scene 2. He says that Antonio, when acting as his regent while he devoted himself to his studies,
The creatures that were mine, I say, or changed ’em,
Or else new formed ’em; having both the key
Of officer and office,set all hearts i’th’ state
To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And suck’d my verdure out on’t.” (Act 1 Sc 2, lines 81-87)
By saying that Antonio “new created” or “new formed” his “creatures” (i.e. Prospero’s subjects and/or people he had appointed to their jobs), Prospero suggests they were figures of clay which Antonio remoulded. This makes Antonio sound controlling and cunning and as if he stole Prospero’s followers and unfairly manipulated them into supporting him and they had no agency or responsibility.
“Set all hearts i’th’ state/To what tune pleased his ear” makes it sound as though their hearts were clockwork automata which Antonio deliberately manipulated to another setting, again making Antonio sound devious and controlling and the subjects like they had no control over their actions and were Prospero’s rightful playthings which Antonio stole.
By comparing Antonio to “ivy” he describes him as a weed, a worthless plant which creeps into garden unwanted and chokes the productive plants which are rightfully there. Saying that he “suck’d the verdure” out of Prospero makes Antonio sound like a parasite who feeds off other people’s blood, like a vampire.
What makes it worse is that Antonio conspires with the King of Naples, an enemy to Milan, to overthrow Prospero, thus acting as a traitor to his country and putting his own personal ambition above national security. The “treacherous army” that he “levied” is thus treacherous both because he is plotting against Prospero behind his back, but also because he is being a traitor to Milan by collaborating with Alonso and forcing the hitherto independent Milan to become a client state to Naples:
The dukedom yet unbowed – alas, poor Milan –
To most ignoble stooping.” (Act 1 Sc 2 lines 114-116)
Furthermore, Prospero stresses the secrecy and hypocrisy with which Antonio committed his foul deeds: “With colours fairer painted their foul ends”, which suggests he covered up his evil purposes with a misleading pleasant appearance. The painting imagery suggests deception and artifice.
In the final scene, Prospero uses disease imagery to describe Antonio: “most wicked sir, whom to call brother/Would even infect my mouth”, implying that Antonio is so evil that Prospero is worried that even calling him by the name “brother” will risk the contagion spreading to him, as well. Remember, in an age several centuries before antibiotics, Jacobean London was at the mercy of deadly infectious diseases, such as syphilis (which had been brought from the New World in the Columbian Exchange) and bubonic plague. Thus this image constructs Antonio as deadly and sets up subliminal associations with dirt, illicit sexual activity and plague carriers like fleas and rats.
Nonetheless, it is important to remember that most of the speeches condemning Antonio are from Prospero’s biased viewpoint. It should not be forgotten that Prospero is a manipulative Italian Machiavel, too, and his words cannot necessarily be trusted!
It is, furthermore, possible to argue that Prospero’s own abdication of responsibility is presented as inviting his own usurpation and that Antonio is thus presented as a responsible ruler, stepping in to fill the void left by Prospero’s incompetence.
He says “the liberal arts […]being all my study
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies”
Saying that the arts were “all my study” makes Prospero sound unhealthily obsessed with his studies, almost an addict. The verb “cast” makes it sound as if he casually abandoned his responsibilities as leader, rather like throwing away a piece of rubbish, and that he imposed them on his brother against his will. Behaving like a “stranger” to the nation he is supposed to be governing makes him seem cold and uncaring and “being transported/And rapt in secret studies” makes his study of magical arts seem illicit and wrong: the fact that they are “secret” suggests he knows he should be ashamed of them and “transported” and “rapt” suggests they have an almost narcotic effect on him.
When Prospero says he was “neglecting worldly ends”, his repudiation of “worldly” goals makes him seem innocent, holy and saintlike, but the verb “neglecting” has more negative connotations – of irresponsibility and failure to perform his allotted duties. This presentation of Prospero as a neglectful ruler, unhealthily obsessed with morally dubious magical practices, makes Antonio’s usurpation sound more justified, even necessary.
Nonetheless, when the audience encounters Antonio first hand in Act 2 Sc 1 and Act 3 Sc 3, he shows evil Machiavellian tendencies which cannot easily be explained away, egging Sebastian on to murder both Alonso and the innocent Gonzalo. His scoffing at Sebastian’s enquiries about his conscience, contrasting an abstract concept like conscience with a physical blister or chilblain (“kibe”), implying that something which is not physical is not real and cannot cause pain, makes him sound like a psychopath.
“Ay, sir, where lies that? If ’twere a kibe,
‘Twould put me to my slipper; but I feel not
This deity in my bosom. Twenty consciences
That stand twixt me and Milan, candied be they,
And melt ere they molest” (Act 2 Sc 1 lines 281-285)
Expressing a wish to “candy” his conscience – boil it in sugar like a piece of fruit to preserve it – again has connotations of deceptiveness, of covering something unpleasant up with something sweet and attractive to disguise its ugliness, and the fact that he wants to preserve his conscience from stopping him from pursuing his plots to gain power makes him seem determinedly cold and evil.
The fact that Antonio twice exhorts Sebastian to murder Alonso and Gonzago when they are sleeping and cannot fight back, makes him seem even more unsympathetic – a manipulative coward who fights dirty and takes advantage of people at their most vulnerable:
“Let it be tonight;
For, now they are oppressed with travel, they
Will not, nor cannot, use such vigilance
As when they are fresh.”
Furthermore, through the mouthpiece of Ariel, dressed as a harpy (half-woman, half-bird creature from Graeco-Roman mythology who acted as an agent of punishment from the gods, an avenging angel who abducted and tortured evildoers, carrying them off to Tartarus or Hell), Shakespeare constructs Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian as:
“three men of sin, whom destiny –
That hath to instrument this lower world
And what is in’t – this never-surfeited sea
Hath caused to belch up you”
He also says that the sea “hath requit” (i.e. revenged or paid them back for) their crime in sending Prospero and Miranda out to sea on an unseaworthy ship:
“for which foul deed
The powers delaying, not forgetting, have
Incensed the seas and shores, yea, all the creatures,
Against your peace.”
Antonio is thus constructed as so great an evildoer that the sea itself, nature and the divine powers have decided to punish him by shipwrecking him on the island, that he is being paid back for his crimes by destiny.
Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored that Ariel is putting on an act. He is not a harpy and destiny has not chosen to shipwreck Antonio – the entire shipwreck was manipulated by Prospero’s magic,not by nature or fate. Furthermore, the audience knows that the other thing which Ariel declared has happened as divine punishment for the crimes of the “three men of sin” – the death of Ferdinand – is just an illusion and hasn’t actually happened. It is hard to believe in the construction of Antonio as a man so sinful that destiny has marked him out for revenge when Ariel’s speech is so shrouded in metadrama.