At the opening of The Merchant of Venice, our titular merchant says “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (I.i.1). And while his friends try to help him out with possible reasons, even prompting a non-denial denial non-denial denial by Antonio that he is in love, the reason remains unclear at best.
But if it is a non-denial denial, then who is the object of Antonio’s affection? Bassanio, of course. Now I know that we’ve delved into this male friendship over romantic love male friendship over romantic love argument before in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I think here we really are dealing with homosexual love.
It’s certainly supported by the text. Bassanio tells Antonio, “To you, Antonio, // I owe the most, in money and in love” (I.i.128-129). In response, Antonio says,
I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it;
And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honor, be assured,
My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions.
What interesting language: “it stand, as you yourself still do”, “the eye of honor”, “my purse, my person, my extremest means.” From phallic actions (stand) to orifices (“eye” stood in place for both the male and female genitalia “because of the shape, the garniture of hair, and the tendency of both organs to become suffused with moisture” [Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 130-131]) to the scrotum and cock (“purse” and “extremest means”… which would be the “outermost, farthest from the centre (of any area); endmost” entity of “the middle” [Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0)], which sounds suspiciously like an erect penis), all this points to male sexuality. And in response to this diction, Bassanio responds with his own sexually charged language: “shaft… I shot… willful youth… if you please to shoot another arrow” (I.i.140, 141, 146, 147-148). Oh, the homosexuality is there if you want to find it.
And it’s not just the pre-supposing reader that sees it, so do the other Venetians, as Salarino recalls Antonio’s and Bassanio’s goodbye: Antonio’s
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.
Tears and wringing of hands, acts that can only be interpreted as love, or so Salanio feels: “I think (Antonio) only loves the world for (Bassanio)” (II.viii.35-53).
When Antonio’s fate seems clearly dark, he wants only Bassanio: “Pray God, Bassanio come // To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (III.iii.35-36); Antonio cares for nothing else. His life, without his lover, is ruined; he is less than complete. He says at the trial, “I am a tainted wether of the flock” (IV.i.114). Again, the use of language is fascinating:
- tainted: “Stained, tinged; contaminated, infected, corrupted; touched with putrefaction or incipient decay; affected with some corrupting influence” (OED)
- wether: “A male sheep, a ram; esp. a castrated ram” (OED)
Antonio has become a contaminated and castrated ram… what an incredibly sad self-loathing of a gay man.
Yes, the interpretation is there, ready to be used, if you care to…