It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare is generally indifferent to the naming of his plays. Such titles as As you Like It, Twelfth Night or What You Will point to the truth of this statement. This is true also of the present play.
But in this case the title in not only vague; it is also apt to be misleading. The play is named obviously after Antonio, who does not seem to.be the dominant character in the play. It has been said that when Roberts entered the play in the Stationers Register he entered it as The Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called The Jew of Venice. For long time before the play was printed it was called The Jew of Venice and this seems to be the more significant and appropriate title of the play. But later on, the name was abandoned and the play was called the Merchant of Venice in order to distinguish it from an earlier play, now lost, called The Jew on which the present drama is based.
It has been already noted that Antonio is not the dominant character in the play. On the other hand it is Shylock who dominates the action of the play. He is a far grander figure than Antonio and it is his passion for money and revenge that absorbs our interest. The play, no doubt, should have been called after him. But as against this view it may be noted that the play deals with the tragedy of Shylock and it was far from Shakespeare’s purpose to make of it a tragedy.
On the other hand, Antonio is-the true protagonist of the play. He is the centre of interest in the play and the main spring of its action. The play deals with his danger which proceeds from his actions and his ultimate release by Portia. He is not merely the hero of the Bond, story but is vitally linked with the Casket story. Try his luck in the. choice of the caskets he borrows money from Shylock and signs the fatal bond. And the rest of the drama is concerned with his fate as the victim of Shylock’s revengeful wrath. He is never lost sight of because the other characters talk about him, his character and fate. Thus, Shakespeare has most ingeniously kept Antonio always in the fore-front. And the play ends with the return of Antonio’s good fortune. All this tends support to the view that the play has open rightly named The Merchant of Venice.
On this point Hudson has justly said-
In the first entry at the Stationers’, the play is described as. The Merchant of Venice or otherwise called The Jew of Venice. But we have not seek for good reasons, why it should be named as it is. For if the Jew is the more important individually, the Merchant is so dramatically. Antonio the centre and main-spring of the action, without him -Shylock, however great himself, as no business ere. And -the laws of dramatic combination, not any accident of individual prominence are clearly what ought to govern the naming of the play.