Homosexuality in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
With every great story line comes a theme. William Shakespeare created an art of intertwining often unrecognizable themes within his plays. In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, one hidden theme is the idea of homosexuality. This theme might not have even been noticed until modern Shakespeare fans discovered them. According to Alan Bray’s book, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, “the modern image of ‘the homosexual’ cannot be applied to the early modern period, when homosexual behavior was viewed in terms of the sexual act and not an individual's broader identity.” (Columbia University Press). This difference between homosexuality as a “sexual act” and an “identity” proves why, during Renaissance England, this theme in Shakespeare’s play was almost invisible. The actual merchant of Venice, Antonio, displays this homosexual identity that might only be recognizable to the modern day reader. Through a close reading of a speech given by Antonio, one can begin to understand the significance of Shakespeare’s word choice and how it plays into this idea of homosexuality.
The main plotline of The Merchant of Venice sets up this underlying theme of homosexuality. Bassanio, a friend of Antonio’s, presents Antonio with a proposition. Bassanio asks that he enter into a contract with a rich man, Shylock, so that Bassanio may pursue his one true love. Antonio agrees to enter into a contract with Shylock. The terms of the contract are that Shylock will lend Antonio and Bassanio twenty thousand ducats as long as Antonio pays him back within three months. If Antonio fails to repay Shylock, Shylock is allowed to take a pound of flesh from Antonio. A close reading of this situation makes the reader wonder why Antonio might enter in a contract in which he will never benefit from. This is where the link of Antonio’s homosexual feelings towards Bassanio can be seen. In the end, Antonio is unable to pay Shylock back on his loan. Antonio, on the verge of having a pound of flesh taken, directs a speech toward Bassanio regarding his love for him. A closer look at this particular speech, which occurs in Act IV Scene I, can help the reader to better understand Shakespeare’s intricate wording that portrays homosexuality in Antonio.
The word “love” is used numerous times in this seventeen line speech given by Antonio. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “love”, as a verb, was used by Shakespeare in his plays meaning “to entertain a strong affection for; spec. to have a passionate attachment to a person of the opposite sex; to be in love” (OED). During this speech, Antonio preaches to Bassanio, “Say how I lov’d you, speak me fair in death” (4.1.271). Taking this statement and placing it against the definition provided, the reader can see that Antonio holds more than just a friendly love towards Bassanio. Before he is about to die, Antonio...