“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”
Perhaps I may take a guess!
A long debated assumption amongst scholars is that Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is gay. In love with his friend Bassanio, he will help him no matter what. Even to get together with Portia. Even borrowing money and putting his own flesh and body up as assurance. Maybe it is just friendship? Or maybe – in this play full of prejudice – there is something else going on?
In his recent novel and spin on the Merchant of Venice story, ‘Shylock is My Name’, Howard Jacobson very much wrote Antonio as a gay man. Similarly, in the 2015 RSC production, Antonio was portrayed very clearly as gay. The line in which he opens the play (in the sub-heading above), spoken intimately and in private to the audience, was very much an echo of what felt like his inability to be able to tell a dear and close friend how he felt about him. Almost as if he was trying to come to terms with the ‘lost chances’ he might have had from years before.
He watches his friend going off to marry, he puts his very flesh on the line to make Bassanio happy and despite all this you feel he knows in his heart that nothing will ever come of it. It is too late, or is it fear and lack of confidence that mean he will never be able to tell Bassanio how he feels?
It has been put forward that Bassanio is also homosexual but afraid to explore the nature of his relationship with Antonio. He doesn’t have the freedom to try to discover his own sexuality.
The cross-dressing of Portia comes up often, bringing forth an argument that Portia is androgynous (hence why she can pull off being dressed as a man in the final scene) which also has something to do with Bassanio’s interest in her – coming from a penchant for slightly boyish women, covering his deeply buried homoerotic tendencies.
This seems a fascinating study and could possibly be true. Maybe there is something in Bassanio that is yet to be discovered about his sexuality. If perhaps he does fall for a more boyish Portia, is it suggestive of something staring him in the face but he has not yet realised? It is also perhaps something Antonio sees all to clearly.
To finish, it may be worth looking at some textual examples to quell my undoubtedly subjective and biased ramblings .
At the start of the play Antonio is keen to find out who Bassanio is in love with but Bassanio is distracted with his debts and tells Antonio that he knows he is most in debt to him.
“To you, Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love”
I think when people sight this as an example of how much “in love” the two are it’s perhaps too thin an argument. This is more likely fraternal love.
What I find more fascinating are the lines below.
“And even there, his eye being big with tears,
Turning his face, he put his hand behind him,
And with affection wondrous sensible
He wrung Bassanio’s hand—and so they parted.”
“I think he only loves the world for him.”
A really interesting observation from two characters – two who are arguably racist and ignorant – that certainly piques one’s interest about what else is going on here. It feels to me that Shakespeare is saying a lot more than one might think. Again, this doesn’t point to a definitive meaning but is interesting nonetheless.
Whether the nuances suggested in Antonio’s sexuality are “played” or not doesn’t really matter. There is an underlying and subversive idea here that there could indeed be something else going on. Shakespeare is being ambiguous as always!
I have picked a pretty obvious couple here, and of course one could find an argument for Portia and Nerissa having a relationship, but I don’t feel that their bond extends beyond sisterly and is very much dictated by class.
The play is riddled with prejudice and racial hatred but full of sexual innuendo and the beautiful love story of Lorenzo and Jessica. What I find interesting is that within this incredibly Christian, Anti-Semitic Italian society, we have a man whose feelings are not clearly known or discussed. This parallels the lives of gay people growing up in the mid-late 20th Century. They quietly sat by in silence without the ability to be free and open in society.
I believe that if Antonio has homosexual feelings for Bassanio, it does lend yet another angle to this already deeply explorative play.
I’d like to finish with a section from the final scene.
“Then you shall be his surety. Give him this
And bid him keep it better than the other.”
“Here, Lord Bassanio; swear to keep this ring.”
“By heaven, it is the same I gave the doctor!”
How painful must this be if Antonio is a gay man and how much more interesting from an audience’s perspective? To see Antonio hand the ring over to Bassanio!
A few lines later, Antonio’s last line is “I am dumb” – a fitting ending for a man who has been on a huge journey with no real closure – we are still not quite sure where he is at the end of the play, a tragic parallel for the hidden voices of homosexual men and women of the period.
He is sad at the start and by the end he is silent.
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Andrew Venning is an actor, writer and general Shakespeare aficionado based in London. He is also one half of the UK podcast duo Thespodyssey. You can find Andrew online at www.andrewvenning.co.uk or on Twitter@AndrewVenning.