Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

I know I said I wasn't going to do this, I mean write about everything I read for my two lit classes this semester. Admittedly, this is not exactly a special circumstance, but I feel the need to comment on it. My Shakespeare professor has discussed that Shakespeare's works can easily be "queered up." He also frequently brings up the concept of platonic love and that Shakespeare's characters don't act the way more modern audiences can relate to in platonic relationships. I am also considering that some of the male relationships have a whole "who's in on the joke" thing going on, considering that when they were written and first produced all of the parts were played by men.

Why, you may ask, am I going on about this? Because there is no getting around the fact that the character of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice is gay. I am taking into consideration all the signs of our different times and our reactions to plays written 400 years ago. Here's the thing, it just doesn't matter. Antonio is gay. This is not some homophobic rant, I swear. I'm not making any judgment about homosexuality. Love is love. When one person falls in love with another person, it's a beautiful thing. The outside of the person is immaterial, well I guess maybe only to the person in love, often the outside matters greatly to others.

Enough general background on my thoughts on all things gay, this is about Antonio. Antonio, who may or may not be the titular character in the play. According to the professor, Antonio is the Merchant of Venice, despite the fact that Shylock is the more memorable character. According to Sparknotes 101 (don't take that attitude with me. I believe in using every tool to get as much understanding of the material as possible) the full title of the play is The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice. I infer that this is yet another way of demoting Antonio to lovesick loser. Now, I will outline how Antonio's homosexuality relegates him to lovesick loser. If you are thinking this is anti-gay, I must assert that even if my point wasn't that Antonio is gay, he would still be a lovesick loser.

Act I, Scene I: Antonio's friends see him on the street and stop to chat. Basically the exchange is something to the effect of, "Why so glum, chum?" The only reasons for him to look so down are A) that he's in love, which he denies; or B) that he's all worried because his financial future depends upon what happens to a boat he has at sea. Antonio is very convincing when he explains that he is not worried about his finances, because his stuff is spread out in a few ships. Gratiano reiterates that it must be love.

The next thing that happens is Bassanio's entrance, like an answer to Gratiano's statement. Now, Shakespeare is not remotely subtle, ever. I definitely find implied meaning here.
Bassanio is a playa. I think he knows the score with Antonio and takes advantage of the situation, whenever possible. Bassanio, although in debt to everyone, including Antonio, has a get rich scheme to get himself a girl and a fortune. Antonio can't deny Bassanio anything. Even though all of his money is tied up in ships that aren't due in for a couple of months, Antonio is still willing to do whatever he can for Bassanio. He agrees to let Bassanio go shop out his good name to get the cash he wants.

Bassanio didn't have to go to Shylock, Antonio's enemy, but he does. Antonio despises Shylock and his business practices and pretty much everything about him. Granted, there is a whole storyline about the Shylock/Antonio feud, so Bassanio did have to go to Shylock for his 3,000 ducats. When I was younger and would question why someone said or did something in a movie, my mother would always answer that it was because it was how it was written. Sure, people could not make the mistakes that they make in a story, but then it would be a much shorter story.

So,Shylock agrees to the loan and if it's not paid back, instead of interest he wants a pound of Antonio's flesh and Shylock gets to pick where he wants it to come from. Even if it's a sure thing, why would anyone agree to this? You'd have to really love someone to make yourself indebted to your greatest enemy with the penalty for default being sacrifice of your life. These are not things you do for someone you have platonic love feelings for. This is a grand romantic gesture.
But, you may say, Antonio is indebting himself to Shylock so Bassanio can win over the fair Portia. True, but Antonio would know that Bassanio is not going to switch teams for him. Antonio would also know that in Elizabethan England (despite where and when the plays are set it's really all about Elizabethan England, or to appeal to and be understood by his audience in, yup, Elizabethan England) he couldn't exactly run off and live happily ever after with Bassanio. Okay, so Antonio is lovesick and he'll do anything for his boy. No hope of wedding bells and babies, he's all hopeless and dejected.

Later in the play, when Antonio defaults on the loan and Shylock takes him to court to get his contract enforced, Antonio doesn't even put up a fight. He's supposed to be everybody in town's favorite guy and yet he doesn't seek help or mount a defense. Why? Because Bassanio took a wife, that's why. Any little fantasies he was harboring have been dashed. This might be the way you would go pre-Prozac, pre-Queer Eye. Antonio is the little sad egg guy on the antidepressant commercials.

I think Portia knew the deal, too. She and her maid/friend, whoever she was, do their little drag show in court. She, obviously, is a smart woman, especially if you consider that she is the only one who knows/understands anything about the law in the courtroom scene. So, I think it's safe to say that Shakespeare wanted us to know that Portia was no fool. I think Portia could tell how Antonio felt about her man, and she showed him who was boss. She could have, at anytime, let Antonio off the hook, but nooo, she didn't. She waited until just before Shylock's knife went into Antonio's chest before she stopped him. Then she destroyed them both. She took pity on Antonio, which was easy to do when she knew she had what she wanted. Then, using her superior knowledge of Venetian law, she threw the book at Shylock.

Back home in Belmont, Portia lets Antonio know how she saved the day, bested everyone and left the two of them indebted to her. I guess that's really another argument, the supreme power held by Portia in this play. Let's just say for the sake of keeping to my original point, for a change, that Portia let Antonio know she was boss and that Bassanio was her man.

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