How to Read The Merchant of Venice Without Being Heterosexist - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 a question which, this essay will show, is hard to frame, let alone answer. But certainly his feelings are intense. When Bassanio leaves for Belmont, as Salerio describes it, he offers to 'make some speed / Of his return'. 'Do not so,' Antonio replies:

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.

(II. viii. 37-8, 46-9)

The intensity, it seems, is not altogether equal. As Auden observes in his poem 'The More Loving One', the language of love celebrates mutuality but it is unusual for two people's loves to match precisely:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

(Auden 1969: 282)

Antonio the merchant, like Antonio in Twelfth Night and the Shakespeare of the sonnets, devotes himself to a relatively casual, pampered younger man of a higher social class.

In fact, Antonio in the Merchant seems to welcome the chance to sacrifice himself: 'pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not' (III. iii. 35-6). Then Bassanio would have to devote himself to Antonio:

You cannot better be employ'd Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.

(IV. i. 117-18)

As Keith Geary observes, Antonio's desperate bond with Shylock is his way of holding on to Bassanio (Geary 1984: 63-4); when Portia saves Antonio's life, Lawrence W. Hyman remarks, she is preventing what would have been a spectacular case of the 'greater love' referred to in the Bible (John 15:13), when a man lays down his life for his friend (Hyman 1970: 112).

That theme of amatory sacrifice contributes to an air of homoerotic excess, especially in the idea of being bound and inviting physical violation. When Bassanio introduces Antonio to Portia as the man 'To whom I am so infinitely bound', she responds:

You should in all sense be much bound to him,
For (as I hear) he was much bound for you.

(V. i. 135-7)

At the start, Antonio lays open his entire self to Bassanio:

be assur'd
My purse, my person, my...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)

Il Property and sodomy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 servant, and Launcelot as servant; Antonio, Shylock and even the Duke are bound by the law; and the Venetians, Shylock rather effectively remarks, have no intention of freeing their slaves (IV. i. 90-8).

Within limits, these bonds may be negotiable: the Duke may commission a doctor to devise a way round the law, friendships may be redefined, servants may get new masters, women and men may contract marriages. Jessica can even get away from her father, though only because he is very unpopular and Lorenzo has very powerful friends; they 'seal love's bonds new-made' (II. vi. 6). Otherwise, trying to move very far out of your place is severely punished, as Shylock finds. It is so obvious that this framework of ideology and coercion is operating to the advantage of the rich over the poor, the established over the impotent, men over women and insiders over outsiders, that directors have been able to slant productions of the Merchant against the dominant reading, making Bassanio cynical, Portia manipulative and the Venetians arrogant and racist.

The roles of same-sex passion in this framework should not be taken for granted (I use the terms 'same-sex' and 'cross-sex' to evade anachronistic modern concepts). For us today, Eve Sedgwick shows this in her book Between Men, homosexuality polices the entire boundaries of gender and social organization. Above all, it exerts 'leverage over the channels of bonding between all pairs of men'. Male-male relations, and hence male-female relations, are held in place by fear of homosexuality—by fear of crossing that 'invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line' between being 'a man's man' and being 'interested in men' (Sedgwick 1985: 88-9; see Dollimore 1992: chs 17-18). We do not know what the limits of our sexual potential are, but we do believe that they are likely to be disturbing and disruptive; that is how our cultures position sexuality. Fear even of thinking homosexually serves to hold it all in place. So one thing footballers must not be when they embrace is sexually excited; the other thing they mustn't be is in love. But you can never be quite sure; hence the virulence of homophobia.

If this analysis makes sense in Western societies today, and I believe it does, we should not assume it for other times and places. As Sedgwick observes, ancient Greek cultures were different (1985: 4). In our societies whether you are gay or not has become crucial—the more so since lesbians and gay men have been asserting themselves. An intriguing thought, therefore, is that in early modern England same-sex relations were not terribly important In As You Like It and Twelfth Night, homoeroticism is part of the fun of the wooing ('Ganymede', the name taken by Rosalind, was standard for a male same-sex love-object); but it wouldn't be fun if such scenarios were freighted with the anxieties that people experience today. In Ben Jonson's play Poetaster, Ovid Senior expostulates: 'What! Shall I have my son a stager now? An...

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III Friendly relations

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)

IV Subcultures and Shakespeare

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 737 words.)