How does Shakespeare present the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice?

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How does Shakespeare present the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio

 in The Merchant of Venice?

        In Elizabethan society it seems that although gender roles were expected to be fixed and distinct, sexuality was far more fluid than the strict categories which we impose on it now.  It was commonly known for men to have male ‘bed-fellows’ and, with Queen Elizabeth’s liking of the Petrarchan form of address, it was not unusual to express these friendships in terms of love.  It is obvious throughout the play that Antonio and Bassanio have a great affection for one another.  Antonio is willing to lend money to Bassanio even though he is likely to squander it on his lavish lifestyle.  There has been a history of debt through which Bassanio has ‘disabled [his] estate,/ By something showing a more swelling port/ Than [his] faint means would grant continuance’ (I.i.123-5).  The fact that Antonio is still prepared to wager everything for his friend despite his proven record suggests that this may be the act of one in love, rather than of an objective friend.  The theme of love as an economy runs throughout the play.

        Bassanio, despite having a rather childlike attitude towards money, seems to appreciate the loan from Antonio, saying, ‘to you Antonio/ I owe the most in money and in love’ (I.i.130-31).  It is interesting that the word ‘money’ precedes ‘love’.  This seems to show that Bassanio is interested in how his friend can alleviate his financial problems and he owes the love only as a gratification for Antonio’s financial aid.  Here the word love, rarely used in the erotic form in writing of the period, does not seem to suggest any homosexuality between the men.

        There are, however, suggestions throughout the play that the love between them may be slightly deeper than it first seems.  Antonio is prepared to give up his life for his debts (all of which he had lent to Bassanio) and Bassanio, on hearing about Antonio’s quandary, immediately leaves Portia behind to help him.  It is notable here that Bassanio does not leave of his own accord.  He is certainly not the hero who valiantly goes to rescue his friend.  Antonio’s letter reads, ‘if your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter.’ (III.iii.319-20).  Bassanio does not seem persuaded to go until Portia has given him money to pay the debt, and given her permission for him to ‘dispatch all business and be gone’ (III.iii.321).  This highlights the fact that Antonio’s love for Bassanio is all encompassing, yet Bassanio’s commitment is dependent on outside influences.

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The news of Antonio’s predicament arrives just at the time Bassanio is preparing for marriage, a ceremony which will eclipse any homosexual relationships.  The timing is suggestive of Antonio’s repressed desire for his friend.  Solanio also comments that Antonio ‘only loves the world for him’ (II.viii.50).  It seems from the text that Bassanio is free of any homosexual desire.  This unequal love is implied by the fact that Antonio is willing to give up his life for his friend and yet Bassanio is willing to see him die for the financial bond.  There is something exploitative in him allowing Antonio ...

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