The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Last Updated on December 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Extended Character Analysis

Bassanio is the merchant Antonio’s “intimate friend” and the wealthy heiress Portia’s favored suitor. A young nobleman of Venice, Bassanio admits to living beyond his means. This has forced him to borrow money from Antonio on numerous occasions. At the start of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio asks Antonio to lend him money so that he can travel to Belmont and court Portia as a man of means. Antonio instead suggests that Bassanio secure a loan through a moneylender and offers to be the guarantor for the loan. Antonio indebts himself to the Jewish moneylender Shylock on Bassanio’s behalf. Using the money, Bassanio travels to Belmont and successfully wins Portia’s hand in marriage.

Though impulsive and financially irresponsible, Bassanio is kind and loyal to his friends. Despite needing the loan to pursue Portia, Bassanio says that he would “rather dwell in [his] necessity” than let his friend Antonio accept such a dangerous bond. During Antonio’s trial, Bassanio offers up “[his] hands, [his] head, [his] heart” in place of Antonio’s pound of flesh. Though he is reckless enough to gamble with money, Bassanio is not willing to gamble with his friend’s life. Ultimately, though he is immature, Bassanio’s better qualities win him the affections of Portia and Antonio.

At the start of the play, Bassanio is an immature, opportunistic man who pursues Portia for her beauty and money. A spendthrift by his own admission, Bassanio has accumulated many debts in Venice. By marrying the wealthy Portia, he hopes to pay off those debts. He describes her in terms of “value” and “worth,” treating her as more of an investment than a wife. Furthermore, he approaches his marriage to Portia as though it is a legal contract rather than a bond of love. After selecting the correct chest, he asks Portia to “confirm,” “sign,” and “ratify” their relationship. During Antonio’s trial, Bassanio privileges his friendship with Antonio over his marriage because his marriage lacks true depth of feeling. He even gives away the ring that Portia gave him as a symbol of marriage, effectively forfeiting their bond.

However, Portia teaches Bassanio to prioritize his marriage and properly appreciate her. When Portia gives Bassanio the ring the first time, she symbolically gives herself to him. By giving it away, Bassanio effectively gives Portia herself away. In order to earn the ring back, Portia makes Bassanio promise his “soul” to her. In doing so, Portia gains equal power within her relationship, as now she and Bassanio both belong to one another. In marrying Portia and listening to her perspective, Bassanio learns to value his wife beyond her wealth and genuinely love her.

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