Discuss the theme of friendship in The Merchant of Venice.

The theme of friendship in The Merchant of Venice is best expressed through Antonio and Bassanio's relationship. Antonio's strong feelings of affection for Bassanio motivate him to take out a loan from Shylock to help his younger friend marry, setting the play into motion. Portia and Nerissa also illustrate strong friendship.

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Friendship is a critical theme of The Merchant of Venice, one most powerfully expressed in the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio . However, what I find particular interesting about Shakespeare's treatment of friendship in this play is how he depicts it in terms of hierarchy (which is noteworthy, given...

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Friendship is a critical theme of The Merchant of Venice, one most powerfully expressed in the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio. However, what I find particular interesting about Shakespeare's treatment of friendship in this play is how he depicts it in terms of hierarchy (which is noteworthy, given that usually friendship is perceived as a relationship between equals).

I think the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio is particularly murky, however (when it comes to discussing these themes of hierarchy). On the one hand, given that Bassanio is a noble, you would think he would occupy greater social status; but do not forget that he is also depicted as financially ruined and desperate to advance his financial standings. With this in mind, the merchant Antonio and Bassanio have a patron–client relationship of sorts, with Antonio lending Bassanio money (and it is in this context that Antonio makes his agreement with Shylock, in order to provide the funds Bassanio requires). With Bassanio's marriage to Portia, however, and Antonio's bond to Shylock coming due, the power dynamics reverse, with the now-wealthy and secure Bassanio attempting to intercede with Shylock on Antonio's behalf (although it will be by Portia's intercession that Antonio's release is ultimately secured).

That being said, I don't think you should discount the genuine bonds of friendship and loyalty these characters have for one another. Antonio proves this when he takes on real and genuine danger for Bassanio's sake, and Bassanio, in turn, is swift to rush to Antonio's support when he learns how his friend's fortunes have turned. Similarly, you can point towards the relationship between Portia and Nerissa to make a similar claim: theirs in particular involves a clearly defined sense of hierarchy (with the wealthy Portia and Nerissa, her servant), but this does not diminish the bonds they share, nor the loyalty they hold to one another.

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The most important friendship in the play is between Antonio and Bassanio. As the play opens, Antonio's friends notice he seems preoccupied and depressed and assume this is because he is worried about the ships he has out to sea. However, he is not anxious about them at all: his depression is due to Bassanio's desire to marry Portia. Antonio, a successful middle-aged merchant, has a great deal of affection for the younger man—so much so that Bassanio's desire to wed is a blow to him that throws him into a funk. Nevertheless, he feels such a strong bond to Bassanio that he is willing to borrow money from Shylock, a moneylender he despises, to help Bassanio. All of this has led some critics to conclude that Antonio' feelings, while they include friendship, are also stronger than friendship for his younger friend.

Whatever the case, Antonio's strong sense of attachment leads him to take a risk to help Bassanio, setting the action of the play into motion.

Another important friendship is that of Portia and her maid Nerissa. They are able to transcend the servant–mistress bond to some extent, because they are so much alike. Nerissa is a strong supporter of Portia, supporting both Portia's desire to wed Bassanio and Portia's desire to defend Antonio in court while disguised as a man. Nerissa is also not afraid to speak frankly to Portia, for example, reminding her that her father set up the casket game to try to protect her.

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I believe that the theme of friendship is best explored through the relationship that exists between Antonio and Bassanio. Audiences find out right away that Antonio and Bassanio are good friends, and I have always thought that Antonio is the far better friend of the two characters. This is because I see Antonio as the far more selfless and generous of the two men. By Bassanio's own admission, he isn't very good with money, and Antonio knows this about his friend. I laugh every time I read Bassanio's plan to woo Portia. He's so shallow. He desires Portia because she is rich enough to keep him out of financial trouble, and she happens to be gorgeous. In order to do his wooing, Bassanio needs money, and Antonio is completely on board with giving him the loan. Basically, Antonio is the guy that will see his friends through thick and thin, no matter the cost. He's the giver in the friendship, and Bassanio is the taker. To be completely fair to Bassanio, though, he does care for Antonio. Bassanio definitely wants the loan, and he wants to use it to win Portia's hand in marriage; however, when Bassanio hears the huge risk that Antonio is taking, Bassanio doesn't want to go through with it anymore. Bassanio may be more selfish than Antonio, but Bassanio understands that protecting his friend is more important than pursuing Portia.

You shall not seal to such a bond for me!
I’ll rather dwell in my necessity.
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The theme of friendship is indeed strong in this play; specifically, the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio is significant because their relationship is the catalyst for many of the play's major plot points. It is Antonio's love for Bassanio that prompts him to offer Bassanio a loan to help him woo Portia. Antonio procures the money from Shylock, who in turn levies a strict penalty for late repayment. Portia sees Antonio's stress resulting from his friend's predicament, and vows to help him. It is Bassanio's capacity for friendship and loyalty that insures even greater love from Portia.

Antonio is also quite possibly in love with Bassanio, perhaps in a platonic way, but the text suggests deeper romantic feelings, as we see in this quote:

Commend me to your honourable wife:

Tell her the process of Antonio's end;

Say how I lov'd you; speak me fair in death;

And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

There is every indication that the deep brotherly love between the two men may in fact have a latent homosexual context, at least from Antonio's perspective. But many productions of the play do not emphasize this theme. The more general theme of male bonding and loyalty is seen in Antonio's desire to convey his feelings to Bassanio in the event of his death. 

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