"Tis strange to find you here, Antonio" Someone said behind him and he whirled around, faintly recognizing the voice. A voice he had not heard in many months, since Venice, since the trial since the faithful day and hour that changed his life. As he turned, his eyes widened and he recognized the man who had wanted to kill him. No, not the man. The Jew.
"Shylock" He uttered wanly.
Antonio looked around. They were standing in front of each other with crowds travelling between them. The sun shined over the Piazza del Duomo without burning. Voices and giggles and the occasional cry was heard. It was a merry place where sacred and profane mingled. "Why are you here?" He took several steps towards the other man who had stood immobile, watching him.
Now however, they were forced to pay attention to each other. Shylock was thinner, as thin as Antonio, but his beard was cropped, his hair shorter. He looked healthier than before but the provocative, hateful glow that had constantly graced his eyes was gone.
Or perhaps that was simply Antonio seeing himself in the eyes of others. "Some things don't change" Shylock answered neutrally. "But I am your brother in faith now. You cannot misjudge me and despise me or spat or kick me."
Antonio's fists curled into balls. "I gave you mercy and you make a mockery of it. You have not changed at all…my brother in Faith, how can you be so when you so readily hate Christians? When everyone in Venice knows…"
"But we're not in Venice. We are Florence, Antonio. And here I'm a New Christian, devoted to my new faith." Shylock had interrupted daftly and firmly, a smirk playing in his lips. For only a moment, Antonio wished he could make the Jew rage and howl again.
"That is the lie you bestowed upon this city?" He hissed, looking around once more as though someone were to notice them.
Shylock smirk widened. "You are in Florence alone, abandoned by your friends, abandoned by your Bassanio whose folly almost costed your life. Do you think I would not know?"
"You almost cost me my life" He bite back. "Do not open your filthy mouth to speak ill of my friends"
"Former friends, I believe"
It brought Shylock great pleasure to see Antonio's jaw clench. He was sure the whole piazza could hear his teeth grinding. "What are you doing here?"
"My business is my own." Shylock answered plainly. "Now go back to the hole you crawled from, Signor Antonio"
Indeed, even though Antonio had not literally crawled from a hole, his present existence brought him more pain and darkness than he ever thought possible. To put it simple, Venice had become unbearable to him, his friends had deserted him as well as Bassanio and his wife who had grown to despise him. He had no one. Nothing on Earth could hurt more than to have his friends rejecting him. All married, all with lives to live and Antonio alone, always alone, wishing and yearning for what he could never have.
Hence the decision of leaving his city was all too easy to make, surprisingly easy. Bassanio's visits to the city grew scarce especially when Portia revealed her pregnancy. Lorenzo and Jessica also chose a sort of seclusion and even Gratiano was too busy trying to keep his mistresses away from the eyes of his wife.
There was no one for him.
Florence had changed in the last decades and he had decided to expand his business there. Ruled by one family who tried to free themselves of the influence of the Empire while Venice sank into it every day. Perhaps it was better this way.
But he could never have expected to see Shylock, the Jew who had wanted his life in the streets of Florence. They all knew of course that Shylock had disappeared but Antonio never gave it much thought to where the man had gone. Everyone had been relieved to see him go, to see him vanish.
But now he was here in Florence, in the city he had chosen to flee to.
It was impossible. Fate was mocking him.
He did endeavour to find in the following weeks what was Shylock's business in Florence. The result of his investigation astonished him.
Shylock had somehow befriended signore Francesco della Vittoria and had financed his book printer. This typography was dedicated to print rare books from Asia and the East as well as Hebraic writings. This action had called the attention of the Medici, Lorenzo di Piero di Medici, who welcomed such initiatives in the city.
Shylock had become famous and respected in Florence, something he never was in Venice. His business was this time honest and pure. It was true that he was still held as a former Jew but they didn't scold him or spat or kick him.
Upon learning this Antonio was both angry and revolted. They didn't know him, the evilness of the man, his vindictive nature, the absent of any heart or mercy or goodness. He wanted to shout out from the highest tower who the Jew was. But no one would listen. Unlike Shylock, Antonio wasn't well looked upon for he was Venetian by birth and Florentines did not look kindly upon those from the Serene Republic.
Shylock had made inquiries in the ghetto and outside it as to why Antonio was in Florence. He learned quickly that his enemy had been trying to expand his business. That his trade was not going well in Venice for after the trial he had made enmities among the tradesmen and his friends. Shylock wondered how that had come to happen and suspected after some thought of Bassanio and his wife, Portia.
It would be so easy now. To approach and crush him. He certainly had the means. He certainly had the power and the people to do it. He could make Antonio to leave Florence disgraced and broken. What stopped him? Nothing, nothing at all. Antonio had no friends in Florence, he knew no one relevant, no one would protect him.
It was tempting and so, so very easy. Shylock still had nightmares about the humiliation he was forced to go through in Venice. And suddenly, in his dreams Antonio replaced him and suffered his pains and his humiliation. Nothing would stop him.
But even so he could not do it. The reason baffled him and confused him for he could not give a proper explanation. All he had wanted once was revenge. Once, his mind whispered as he sat in front of the fireplace in his house. Once, a year a mere year ago, he would not have hesitated. Shylock the Jew would have crushed Antonio the Christian. Now, he could not do it.
It had to do with the second time he saw Antonio.
It was in the docks down in the river. Shylock had accompanied Francesco who was to pick up some packages of books that came from Constantinople when they noticed a great gathering and a man shouting. The man was Antonio. Upon recognizing him, Shylock broke through the crowd and asked a woman what was happening. "There was an accident and they damaged his cargo. It fell to the river when they were travelling from the Tyrrhenian Sea"
Antonio was despairing and people had started to laugh at him. Someone from the crowd shouted an insult, something related to that "stronzo of a venetian". Slowly people lost interest in the argument which Antonio was clearly losing and dispersed. Shylock stayed for a little more observing with morbid fascination the desperation in the other man's voice who was now practically begging for some sort of refund.
Shylock stared for endless minutes at him and a sort of epiphany, or realization hit him strong in the chest.
Antonio reminded him of himself.
The desperation, the humiliation, the anger and finally the resignation. The defeat. All there in Antonio's face a perfect mirror of his own.
All the desire for revenge had vanished. And so Shylock turned his back to the man and left the docks.
The third time they saw each other was strangely, at a whorehouse. It was odd for neither Shylock nor Antonio had such inclinations. The Jew had kept his appetites in check after his wife's death, dedicating all his thoughts to his money and his business. Antonio on his side, was well aware of his nature and it had been a long time since he had shared a bed with a woman. But this time finding himself alone and miserable in a hateful city, Antonio looked for a comfort men did not give him.
Shylock by his part had answered a call from his friend, Francesco who had in many ways replaced Tubal in his life. Francesco was married and had five sons. And although he had forbidden the boys from frequenting such places they, being young and reckless paid no heed. His eldest son, Enzo, had so found himself in a brawl with another customer. The situation escalated quickly and someone went on to call his father so the boy could pay the damages and leave.
Shylock was with him and while Francesco sat his son down and threw water onto his face to lessen his inebriation, he looked around.
And was surprised to find that the man with whom young Enzo had quarreled was Antonio. Shylock blinked once or twice trying to make sense of this ridiculous notion. Antonio unlike his debased friends was known for having never stepped inside a brothel in Venice where such establishments proliferated. He was a pious man they used to say though Shylock always suspected that the reason of such fact lied on his personal preferences rather than on moral rectitude.
There could be only one reason for his constant melancholy and at the same time for the vehement way in which he helped Bassanio. Yes, they thought him heartless and blind to everything that wasn't profit or gain but Shylock saw more than they all believed. And when he looked at Antonio that night he reminded him very much of dog who had lost its master. Bouncing slightly, trying to focus his gaze on something, the man was clearly very lost and very drunk.
And then their eyes met.
Antonio started to laugh hysterically and pointed at him "Look! The cause of all my miseries!" Everyone in the salon turned to look at Shylock who narrowed his eyes, silence becoming more and more deafening. "The converted Jew who is still richer and happier than me! How can it be Shylock? Is it in your blood? Has it to do with your race? You never seem to perish but always rise again stronger! Like a rat whom the cat chases but always finds a hole to hide. You always seem to prosper no matter how dark your sins and how bleak your heart!"
He was yelling now and even Francesco had turned to watch the scene. He was preparing to take the matter into his own hands but Shylock halted him and walked forward to Antonio and took his arm "Let go of me!" He pitifully argued but the Jew paid no heed to his requests and dragged him to the outside. To all fairness Antonio didn't fight him.
In the street, Shylock yanked his arm only to set it free. As a result, Antonio stumbled and fell to the ground. The Jew snorted "Look at yourself! You are pathetic. Kicked out from a whorehouse. How low have you sunk?"
Even though Shylock had abandoned his desire to take revenge on Antonio, he couldn't help but feel a certain glee in seeing the man's wretched state. But Antonio seemed to have taken his words to the heart. "Damn you" He whispered "Damn you and this city and to hell with my ships and Bassanio and his wife and their baby"
Shylock frowned and for a long time he merely watched the man wriggling his hands still on the ground, pulling his knees to his chest. Antonio resembled a pouting child. "Those are strong words" Shylock said then. "Since when do you speak with such venom? I thought your bitter words were reserved for Jews only"
"You know nothing of me. You know nothing of my words"
Shylock sighed then feeling suddenly very tired. "That hasn't stopped the likes of you before from judging and spat on others. Your inferiors, isn't it not Antonio?" This brought him no answer. "Go home, you're drunk. Tomorrow you shall have a deservedly headache. Perhaps it will serve to remind you that you have one and should try to make more use of it"
He had turned back when he heard him whisper "I have no home." The Jew halted again "I have no house to go to"
Slowly, he turned around. Antonio had not stood up yet. "What?"
"I don't have money" He muttered, ashamed hiding his head between his knees "With my cargo lost I haven't received any money and I cannot sell. The landlord kicked me out" His head was raised again "And so now you see Shylock the Jew of Venice, how low I have sunk."
Shylock merely looked at him, feeling something spreading through his chest, something he hadn't felt in years: pity.
He was actually pitying the Christian who had ruined his life, who had mocked him and tortured him who had made him turn from his family, from his race from his people. The idea was too ridiculous to be true. And yet there it was, unmistakable coming from the depths of his being.
"I cannot believe it" He muttered under his breath though he could not discern what he didn't believe in
And with this he walked again to Antonio and seized his shoulder, making him stand. Then he searched for his purse and opened it, counting the money. He closed it again and placed it on his hand "Don't you dare to lose it. There will be no more from where that came from."
Shylock walked away as Antonio stared astonished, his mouth half opened at the purse and then at him again "What is this?" He cried out "I don't have how to pay you back Shylock! I don't want your loans again!"
Shylock didn't stop and merely said "Tis not a loan. I am no longer a usurer."
"But why?!" Antonio shouted and Shylock feared he might wake up the entire street.
Once again he stopped walking and looked back only for a moment "Tis called mercy"