How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist
How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist
Alan Sinfield, The University of Sussex
It has been recognized for a long time that The Merchant of Venice is experienced as insulting by Jewish eople, who constitute a minority in Western Europe and North America. So powerful, though, is the reputation of Shakespeare's all-embracing 'humanity' that this scandal has often been set aside. Nevertheless, in 1994 a newspaper article entitled 'Shylock, Unacceptable Face of Shakespeare?' described how directors were acknowledging that the text requires radical alterations before it can be produced in good faith.1 David Thacker at the Royal Shakespeare Company was changing some of Shylock's most famous lines and moving scenes around. And Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was presenting a Portia ready to embrace racist attitudes in her determination to be worthy of her father and a Jessica weeping inconsolably at the end as she laments her loss of her Jewish heritage.
For some commentators, it is sign of the deterioration of our cultures that minority out-groups should feel entitled to challenge the authority of Shakespeare. Christopher Booker, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1992, complained bitterly about an English Shakespeare Company production of The Merchant set in 1930s Italy, with Shylock as a suave, sophisticated modern Jewish businessman confronted by fascists. 'In other words,' Booker writes, 'the producer had given up on any distasteful (but Shakespearean) idea of presenting Shylock as an archetypal cringing old miser. He really had to be more sympathetic than the "Christians".' To Booker this was 'bleatings about racism', whereas 'Shakespeare so wonderfully evokes something infinitely more real and profound . . . a cosmic view of human nature which is just as true now as it was in his own day' (Booker 1992).
The problem is not limited to Jewish people. The Prince of Morocco is made to begin by apologizing for his colour—'Mislike me not for my complexion,' he pleads (II. i. 1), taking it for granted that Portia will be prejudiced. And he is right, for already she has declared her distaste: 'if he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me' (I. ii. 123-5); and after Morocco has bet on the wrong casket she concludes: 'Let all of his complexion choose me so' (II. vii. 79). And how might gay men regard the handling of Antonio's love for Bassanio, or the traffic in boys that involves Launcelot, the disguised Jessica, the disguised Nerissa and the disguised Portia?
The question of principle is how readers not situated squarely in the mainstream of Western culture today may relate to such a powerful cultural icon as Shakespeare. In a notable formulation, Kathleen McLuskie points out that the pattern of 'good' and 'bad' daughters in King Lear offers no point of entry to the ideas about women that a feminist criticism might want to develop; such criticism 'is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text' (McLuskie, 1985: 97).2 This challenge has caused some discomfort: must exclusion from Shakespeare be added to the other disadvantages that women experience in our societies? But it has not, I think, been successfully answered. In this essay I pursue the question as it strikes a gay man.
I Antonio vs. Portia
As W. H. Auden suggested in an essay in The Dyer's Hand in 1962, the The Merchant of Venice makes best sense if we regard Antonio as in love with Bassanio (Auden 1963; see also Midgley 1960). In the opening scene their friends hint broadly at it. Then, as soon as Bassanio arrives, the others know they should leave the two men together—"We leave you now with better company. . . . My Lord Bassanio, since you have found Antonio / We two will leave you' (I. i. 59, 69-70). Only Gradano is slow to go, being too foolish to realize that he is intruding (I. i. 73-118). As soon as he departs, the tone and direction of the dialogue switch from formal banter to intimacy, and the cause of Antonio's sadness emerges:
Well, tell me now what lady is the same
To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage—
That you to-day promis'd to tell me of?
(I. i. 119-21)
Bassanio moves quickly to reassure his friend and to ask his help: 'to you Antonio /I owe the most in money and in love' (I. i. 130-1). The mercenary nature of Bassanio's courtship, which troubles mainstream commentators who are looking for a 'good' heterosexual relationship, is Antonio's reassurance. It allows him to believe that Bassanio will continue to value their love, and gives him a crucial role as banker of the enterprise.
Whether Antonio's love is what we call sexual is...
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Il Property and sodomy
The reader may be forgiven for thinking that, for a commentator who has claimed to be excluded from the Merchant, this gay man has already found quite a lot to say. Perhaps the love that dared not speak its name is becoming the love that won't shut up. In practice, there are (at least) two routes through the Merchant for out-groups. One involves pointing out the mechanisms of exclusion in our cultures—how the circulation of Shakespearean texts may reinforce the privilege of some groups and the subordination of others. I have just been trying to do this. Another involves exploring the ideological structures in the playtexts—of class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality—that facilitate these exclusions. These structures will not be the same as the ones we experience today, but they may throw light upon our circumstances and stimulate critical awareness of how our life-possibilities are constructed.3
In The Merchant, the emphasis on the idea of being bound displays quite openly the way ideological structures work. Through an intricate network of enticements, obligations and interdictions—in terms of wealth, family, gender, patronage and law—this culture sorts out who is to control property and other human relations. Portia, Jessica and Launcelot are bound as daughters and sons; Morocco and Arragon as suitors; Antonio and Bassanio as friends; Gradano as friend or dependant, Nerissa as dependant or...
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III Friendly relations
Heroic friendship is one of Smith's six 'cultural scenarios' for same-sex relations (1991: 35-41, 67-72, 96-9, 139-43). In Shakespeare, besides the sonnets, it is represented most vividly in the bond between Coriolanus and Aufidius in Coriolanus:
Know thou first,
I lov'd the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
(IV. v. 114-19)7
Unlike Portia, Aufidius's wife is not there to resent him finding his warrior-comrade more exciting than she.
In his essay 'Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England', Alan Bray explores the scope of the 'friend' (Bray 1990). Even as marriage was involved in alliances of property and influence, male friendship informed, through complex obligations, networks of extended family, companions, clients, suitors and those influential in high places. Claudio in Measure for Measure explains why he and Juliet have not made public their marriage vows:
This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us....
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IV Subcultures and Shakespeare
Traub notes a reading of Twelfth Night that assumes Olivia to be punished 'comically but unmistakably' for her same-sex passion for Viola. But 'to whom is desire between women funny?' Traub asks (1992b: 93). This was my initial topic: must Shakespeare, for out-groups such as Jews, feminists, lesbians, gays and Blacks, be a way of re-experiencing their marginalization? I have been trying to exemplify elements in a critical practice for dissident readers. Mainstream commentators on the Merchant (whether they intend to or not) tend to confirm the marginalization of same-sex passion. Lesbians and gay men may use the play (1) to think about alternative economies of sex-gender; (2) to think about problematic aspects of our own subcultures. But (the question is always put): Is it Shakespeare? Well, he is said to speak to all sorts and conditions, so if gay men say 'OK, this is how he speaks to us'—that, surely, is our business.
With regard to the first of these uses, the Merchant allows us to explore a social arrangement in which the place of same-sex passion was different from that we are used to. Despite and because of the formal legal situation, I have shown, it appears not to have attracted very much attention; it was partly compatible with marriage, and was partly supported by legitimate institutions of friendship, patronage and service. It is not that Shakespeare was a sexual radical, therefore. Rather, the early...
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