Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sexual variance in Shakespeare

The other day I reread "The Merchant of Venice" for the first time in many years. I recalled that two decades ago the gay scholar Seymour Kleinberg had published an article arguing that the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio was homoerotic. Reading the play this didn’t seem to be the case. Yet when I saw the current film everything changed, for once real performers fleshed out the bloodless characters of the printed page the relationship became clear to me. This effect was all the more noteworthy because the theme was not especially emphasized by the production.

At the beginning of the play Antonio is suffering from a motiveless melancholy, and there is nothing his friends can do to relieve it. The friends leave and the likely cause of the depression emerges: Bassanio, Antonio’s bosom buddy is planning to get married. In the film Jeremy Irons, 57, plays Antonio, a shipping magnate who specializes in risky ventures. Apart from business, he seems to have no life, except for doting on Bassanio, a dashing but profligate young man who needs money. Despite the enmity between them, Antonio raises it from the Jewish usurer Shylock, using his own body as surety (the famous "pound of flesh" agreement).

At 3.4 Portia flatly says that Antonio is Bassanio’s "bosom lover." That they are more than just friends is demonstrated by the climactic scene in which Antonio prepares to lay down his life for his friend, while the friend says that he values his male beloved more than his wife.

A secondary theme of sexual variance is the fact that no less than three characters undergo double disguise. As we all know, but are rarely permitted to experience, an authentic performance of an Elizabethan play would cast boys in the female roles. Sometimes Shakespeare transforms these (boy)girls back into boys. A familiar example is Rosalind in "As You Like It." At any rate in "The Merchant of Venice" Jessica first disguises herself as a boy in order to elope. Her boyfriend Lorenzo speaks of Jessica’s “lovely garnish of a boy (2.6), (Interestingly, the Oxford editor Jay L. Halio sees fit to change lovely to "lowly," without any good textual grounds.) Then in the court scene both Portia and her servant Nerissa appear disguised as young men.

By the by, there are a series of interesting triads: three double-disguise figures, three caskets, three marriages, and three rings. Antonio, the aging loner, stands outside the orbit of all of these.

There is no doubt that the issues presented by the character of Shylock are deeply problematic in Shakespeare’s play. But these may have obscured the issues of gender ambivalence.