One of the common observances in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is the implied romantic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. Their passionate comradery and willingness to sacrifice for one another simply cannot be read as platonic. In his critical essay, “How to Read the Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist”, Alan Sinfield emphasizes this point with several examples, particularly in the rivalry between Antonio and Portia for Bassanio’s affections. Moreover, Sinfield suggests that Portia’s internal quest to conquer Bassanio and therefore assert her dominance as a lover over Antonio, while not exactly homophobic, is heterosexist in nature. Due to the seemingly “happy ending” of the play, in which Portia and Bassanio resume as husband in wife in a hetero-normal relationship, it is suggested to readers that the relationship between the two men was not meant to be taken seriously. Thus, the ideal of homosexual relationships in Shakespeare’s work may be disregarded by the readers.
From her introduction, it is clear that Portia does not wish to adhere to patriarchal social norms. In several ways, she effectively rebels against the trope of a woman being controlled by the men in their life. Not only does she successfully marry the suitor of her choosing but she also uses wit and determination to outsmart Shylock in court. In turn however, she abides by patriarchal customs to use against her fiancé, Bassanio, as well as against Antonio. Sinfield explores this notion by analyzing her guise as Balthazar. “It is to contest Antonio’s status as lover, that Portia, in her role of the young doctor, demands of Bassanio the ring which she had given him in her role as a wife.” (Marcus/Sinfield 273). In reality, Portia only asked one thing of Bassanio: to keep the ring she presented to him in their betrothal. After he fails to keep this promise, Portia could have easily severed the ties of their marriage. Instead, she turns the tables when she returns the ring to him, first by gaining it as Balthazar and then by giving it to Antonio. Though it appears that she is welcoming Antonio into her home, she is instead using her decided dominance over both men, theoretically atop them in a power structure.
As Sinfield explains, just because there are no sexually explicit relations between Bassanio and Antonio, it does mean that there is no possibility of one. Antonio does appear to be more openly gay, as he shows no interest in any woman throughout the play. In turn, though Bassanio does express his interest in Portia and later marries her, their marriage is not immediately consummated. Furthermore, his strong feelings for Antonio are expressed, even in front of Portia. “Antonio, I am married to a wife, which is as dear to me as life itself; but life itself and all the world, are not with me esteemed above thy life.” (Marcus/ Shakespeare 290-293 IV.i). In this moment, Portia is neither disgusted or surprised by this declaration. Rather, she now has further motivation to maintain control over Bassanio. She does not dismiss Antonio nor scorn Bassanio for their relationship; however, she does disrupt it through securing her role as a wife, and therefore “disallows the entire seriousness of male love.”. (Marcus/Sinfield 273). If it were not for Portia, Antonio could have lost his life. In the end, both his life and his wealth are secured by Portia, leaving him entirely in her debt. If any relationship were to continue between him and Bassanio, it would only because Portia allows it.
Patriarchy is addressed once more by Sinfield, who reminds readers that “patriarchy does not oppress only women; a patriarch is not just a man…”. (Marcus/Sinfield 278) Again, though Portia is not portrayed as overtly homophobic, her rivalry with Antonio reinstates the societal importance of hetero-normal marriage. Afterall, marriages were meant for the purpose of producing heirs, something that cannot be done naturally in a homosexual relationship. “Because women may bear children, relations between women and men affected the regulation of lineage, alliance, and property, and hence offered profound potential disruptions to the social order and the male psyche.” (Marcus/Sinfield 277). Marriage was not for sexual pleasure but to maintain hetero-normal social constructs. If a man, could produce children, especially sons, they were distinctly masculine in nature. Though she broke social constructs to her own advantage, Portia willingly contributed to the ideal that men should only be with women.
As a gay man himself, Sinfield focused on the homosocial themes within The Merchant of Venice. In his opinion, the best way to understand the play was to recognize that Antonio was in love with Bassanio and that his love was very possibly requited. In the era which the play was written, openly sexual behavior was seen as improper and moreover, the idea of serious homosexual relationships was disregarded. As Sinfield states, “gay people today are no more immune to racism than other people.” (Marcus/Sinfield 284). It is therefore important for readers, no matter gay, straight or otherwise, to not overlook the homosexual identities and behaviors in the play.
Sinfield, Alan. How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist. 1998.
Shakespeare, William, and Leah S. Marcus. The Merchant of Venice: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, Rewritings and Appropriations. Norton & Company, 2006.