All for the Sake of Love
The Merchant of Venice show the dynamics of love and to what extent humans will go to for love; they will use their wealth and even be prepared to give up their life for the people they profess to love. Both Antonio and Portia love Bassanio but in two different ways. Portia perceives Antonio’s agape is in competition with her eros, (both forms of love will be defined later) and throughout the play she is seen trying to defeat Antonio’s agape and she does this by subjugating Antonio, firstly with her wealth. She offers to pay off his debt to Shylock three times more the amount he had bound himself, then she saves his life and finally teaches Bassanio that she can use her womanly powers to refuse him the consummating power in marriage, through the ring saga. Portia is not like the other women in Shakespeare’s comedies, who in the beginning show strong opposition to patriarchal authority, but who in the end submit themselves to their husbands and claim them as sovereign rulers over them. Portia subjugates both Antonio and Bassanio. This paper will also dismiss the notion that Antonio and Bassanio have a homoerotic relationship with each other.
There are two reasons why this paper dismisses the notion of homosexuality between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. First, throughout the play there is no evidence that Antonio and Bassanio have had an intimate physical relationship. The reason why Bassanio wants to go to Belmont “for a lady richly left” is to able have this intimate physical relationship with Portia, thus dismissing the notion that Bassanio has homoerotic feelings for Antonio.
Secondly, the word love can have multiplicity of meaning which if not understood properly can lead one to see Bassanio and Antonio’s friendship as homoerotic. For the purpose of this discussion, the word love will be defined in terms of two Greek words, both of which mean love, but in two different senses. The two that are relevant to this paper are agape and eros. Agape means to choose to seek the best for others. In Christianity this type of love is God’s love. This is a love based in the mind. Agape love is characterized by actively thinking about, and deciding how we act toward other people. Agape love is talking about our behavior towards others, not our feelings (Evangelical US 2). This is not the romantic or conventional type love. It is the highest form of love, and it does carry Christian undertones. It is the same kind of love that Christ had for his apostles and all those that associated with him. Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio, is not the ordinary conventional love. His agape runs deep for his friend. He esteems his friend’s needs above his own to the extent that he puts his life on the line for Bassanio. This is the love spoken of by Salanio when he reveals the depth of Antonio’s love for Bassanio “I think he loves the world of him” (II.vi.50). The other type of love is known as eros, it is what most people refer to when they announce with a smile, I'm in love. “This type of love covers everything from queasy stomachs and warm fuzzy feelings to strong sensual passion” (A Short Handbook on Love) or, in other words, intimate romantic love. Eros is the love between Portia and Bassanio. The word love in this paper will be substituted by the words agape and eros to emphasize the distinctions when addressing Antonio and Bassanio’s love and the love between Portia and Bassanio. Even though the love between Antonio and Bassanio and Bassanio and Portia are completely different, they are in competition with each other.
Bassanio is aware of Antonio’s agape for him, and therefore exploits Antonio’s love in exchange for money. The depth of Antonio’s agape is not superficial, it runs deep, which surfaces when he tells Bassanio “…if stand as you yourself still do/Within the eye of honour, be assur’d/My purse, my person. My extreme means/Lie all unlock’d to your occasion” (I.i.136-39). It is because of this agape that Antonio goes into a bond with his Jewish enemy Shylock who, in return for this favor demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he default on the loan agreement. In Love and Likeness Walter F Eggers Jr. writes that …“Antonio has to enlist Shylock’s help to make his generosity to Bassanio possible. For the first time in the play, friendship is seen as socially exclusive. Again however, the token of friendship is money …” (329). Bassanio’s agape therefore is quite superficial, for he demonstrates that he is willing to bind and sacrifice his friend to Shylock, so he can advance his eros for Portia. Even though Bassanio asks Antonio not to go into debt with Shylock, however since he has asked already Antonio’s agape will not allow him to hold back from Bassanio what he desires. Antonio’s agape knows how deeply Bassanio desires to have Portia, and he willingly gives himself for Bassanio’s quest to obtain Portia.
Portia becomes aware that her eros for Bassanio is in competition with Antonio’s agape. This recognition comes when Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio in which he states that he has defaulted on the bond with Shylock. Upon hearing the content of the letter, Portia asks “Is it your dearest friend that is in trouble? (III.ii.291). Bassanio replies “The dearest friend to me,….In doing courtesies, and whom /The ancient Roman honor more appears/Than any that draws breath in Italy” (III.iv.292-296). It seems that when Portia asks her question, there is a bit of irony in her voice. Perhaps she did not expect Bassanio to exalt his friend over her. The implication Bassanio makes here is that Antonio is by far the dearest person in his life. Bassanio uses superlatives to qualify his friendship with Antonio “the dearest friend to me, the kindest/The best conditioned and unwearied spirit” (III.ii.292-293).