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A couple of years ago, I went to a stage performance of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which Antonio and Bassanio were portrayed as being in a gay relationship together since before the start of the play. This correspondingly affected the romance between Bassanio and Portia, which was portrayed as being somewhat forced.

At first I didn't feel this was true to the original spirit of the play - I'd always imagined Bassanio as being merely close friends with Antonio and being in love with Portia - but I do remember some lines in the play which (assuming they weren't changed for this performance, which I think is very unlikely) seemed to fit surprisingly well with this interpretation.

Is there any textual evidence that Bassanio and Antonio were or weren't in a relationship?

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  • I can't remember any quotes which state unequivocally their relationship fell one way or the other - though I've found this a theme in male relationships throughout Shakespeare - he does seem to hold the love between two men (platonic, it seems) as above the hetrosexual. A quick search throws up several articles ( eg this paper and article. The theme is to propose a relationship beyond the platonic but without undeniable proof. Jun 1 '17 at 21:50
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    I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'textual evidence'. Antonio is completely willing to put his life on the line for Bassanio (as I remember it). I've always read the play as Antonio being in love with Bassanio (but not vice versa) and knowing it can never be
    – tryin
    Jul 15 '19 at 7:07
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There is a modern tradition of Antonio and Bassanio, and the rest of The Merchant of Venice, being interpreted in queer terms.

A common starting point for this is the first line of the play. "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad", says Antonio. We don't either. He's rich, he has close friends, he seems to have no desire to marry. He goes to great lengths for his friend Bassanio though, putting his wealth and even life at risk. At the end of the play Antonio is still making extravagant promises on Bassanio's behalf, now to his wife: "My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord / Will never more break faith advisedly".

It's all a bit much.

There's also a serve of cross-dressing, if you remember, with Portia and Nerissa dressing as men so Portia can be the lawyer for Antonio, and jokes about Bassanio sleeping with the (male) lawyer she pretends to be. There's plenty of other secret identities, concealments and revelations throughout the play, too: like Jessica converting to Christianity.

An early reference for the queer tradition is WH Auden's essay Brothers and Others, from 1948, which notes Antonio's obsession with Bassanio, and the Renaissance association of sodomy with usury. "It can, therefore, hardly be an accident that Shylock the usurer has as his antagonist a man whose emotional life, though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a member of his own sex."

The RSC website has a 1965 production with "the unmistakeable suggestion of a homosexual dimension to the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio". I wouldn't be surprised if a less institutional company got there even earlier. The Michael Radford film starring Al Pacino, also uses the text to make Antonio and Bassanio's relationship ambiguous. It could be showing them as gay or bisexual, or it could just be showing the difference in male friendships across different places and times.

More direct discussion of queerness - or just biting the bullet and showing the characters as gay - seems to start in the late 1970s, going by Joseph Pequiney's The Two Antonios and Same-Sex Love in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice (PDF). This 1999 journal article by Steve Patterson goes so far as to describe it as a "modern cliche".

Lastly there's an excellent poem on the queerness of Merchant and the openness of Shakespeare in general to interpretation, The Sadness of Antonio, by Jason Schneiderman.

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  • You write, "There is a tradition of Antonio and Bassanio, ..., being interpreted in queer terms." Do you have any information on when that tradition started? It may have started long after Shakespeare's lifetime.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 22 '20 at 13:03
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    Edited answer to give more detail on the tradition, which is mostly a modern one, though also seems to have some basis in Renaissance ideas of sexuality.
    – Adam Burke
    Dec 30 '20 at 22:40
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There are several renditions of the play that depict Antonio and Bassanio to be lovers (though they cannot show it due to the time they are living in). They insinuate that Bassanio is just marrying Portia for her money. As for textual proof, I have nothing concrete, but at the beginning of the play, Antonio is melancholy for a reason that is never explained. In my Shakespeare class, we discussed how this may be the result of his unreturned love for Bassanio.

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    Hi Bella, welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. You write, "As for textual proof, I have nothing concrete", but textual evidence is exactly what is being asked for ...
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 13 '20 at 19:33
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    I’d suggest including the quotes from Act 1 Sc 1 that describe this melancholy (particularly the explicit reference to “no man — no, nor woman either”), as well as the lines from the end of the play that suggest the Antonio is still melancholic.
    – Gaurav
    Mar 14 '20 at 14:50

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