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?

  • 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, 2017 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, 2019 at 7:07

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 22:40

There are many, many quotations that reveal the homosexual relationship. Why is Antonio sad? Because he is in love with a male prostitute and, in performance of anal sex with a client, Bassanio has injured himself and so is unable to satisfy Antonio's lust - nor earn money in to the bargain (explaining his need to borrow money and to marry a sugar mummy in the form of Portia).

An outrageous claim? Well what exactly does Bassanio mean when he says, "Tis not unknown to you Antonio / How much I have disabled mine estate / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance."? Decoding this is simple enough. To have sex with someone was to "know them" so Bassanio is explaining why he cannot have sex with Antonio when he says "unknown to you". His "estate", the source of his income" has been "disabled" or, in more graphic terms, his anus has been ruptured, by a overly large penis, the "swelling port", that his back passage could not accommodate or "grant continuance". Graphic I know, but readers must understand that this was a comedy, and cod pieces and actions would have been employed to make explicit what the language suggests. Antonio's response to this? He offers to swap roles, to accommodate Bassanio instead of vice versa. This is why he says "My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions". His "extremest means" is, of course, his anus, suggested by the reference to "his person" which he is unlocking for Bassanio's use for the first time as homosexual roles are reversed.

This is just a taster of the homosexual bawdy that pervades the play. But to round off here, the joke when Shylock intially asks for a pound of flesh is that he is referring to Antonio's genitals. He is planning a circumcision with knobs on! Or knobs off in this case! And we know that Shylock knows about Antonio's homosexuality from his greeting, "Why signor Antonio, you were the last man in our mouths".

Suddenly the play takes on a comic dimension, doesn't it?

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