Kinsmen or “Cousins”
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, more than two dozen actors play the roles of merchants, lovers, servants, and citizens. It is a tale of childhood loves, deep friendship, and bitter enmity. The play is one of Shakespeare’s later comedies. The two driving stories in the play are of the love between Bassanio and Portia and the bitter hatred Shylock and Antonio have for each other. However, there is a deeper, almost unspoken tale linking these two stories together: the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. Shakespeare leaves his reader tantalizing clues as to how this relationship developed, what the true nature of it is, and why it is important to The Merchant of Venice.
To understand the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, one must first understand the characters on their own. Antonio, apparently born and raised in Venice, is a wealthy merchant. Probably about thirty or forty years old, he owns many ships and uses them for trade overseas, most likely to the Orient and other distant lands. His credit in Venice is good due to his wealth, and that credit is vital because he often ties up his assets in business ventures. His wealth is why Shylock does not care for him very much. It turns out that Antonio repaid all of the debts owed to Shylock. When this happened, Shylock, a moneylender, lost most of his income because he would not be able to seize the property of those who owed him money. It is presumable that Antonio repaid these debts simply because Shylock was a Jew; anti-Semitism was commonplace in the Elizabethan era and even Shakespeare’s ‘heroes’ are not immune to it. While he seems to hate Shylock, Antonio seems to have some sort of affection for Bassanio, a young lord from Belmont.
Bassanio grew up in Belmont with a young lady named Portia, who was of a wealthy family. It becomes clear early on in the play that Bassanio fell in love with Portia while they were children together in Belmont and has a strong desire to marry her. At some point, however, Bassanio immigrated to Venice, where he has been living for some time. He has fallen severely into debt, which leaves the playgoer to wonder what the nature of his station is. Was he the younger son of a noble who stood to inherit nothing? He is obviously in his twenties or thirties at this time, so it is conceivable that he was the younger son if his father was dead. If he was not the younger son, was his father a landless lord? It does not seem that Bassanio has any lands. Could it possibly be a strange combination of the two where Bassanio was the younger son but there was not even an inheritance to give the older son. Whether any of these scenarios are true or not, the fact remains that at the play’s beginning, Bassanio is deeply in debt but has heard that Portia’s father has died and now nobility and gentlemen from across the known world are going to Belmont in the hopes of winning the fair Portia’s hand. Bassanio becomes determined to go to Belmont to win her, but he needs money to do this. This leaves him in something of a quandary – that is, until he remembers Antonio.
The nature of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is a subject under debate. To this debate, there are three main stands. The first is that the relationship is a homosocial one, the second that it is merely friendship, and the third is that Bassanio and Antonio are, in fact, family. To understand the homosocial stand, one must first understand what the term homosocial means. A homosocial relationship is very much like a homosexual relationship, however, the parties involved are not sleeping with each other, therefore the relationship is not homosexual. The stand that they are just friends is perhaps the weakest of the three, as there is little evidence that cannot be refuted on that issue. The third, that they may in fact be kin, is also something of a strong argument, as the play states that the pair are kin.
How does one know that the relationship is not homosexual, but homosocial? The playgoer knows that the relationship is most likely not homosexual because there are no references to Antonio or Bassanio being suspected of sleeping together, or that either of them has been labeled homosexual. The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio may be homosocial, and support for this stand comes from the actions of both Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio lends Bassanio 3,000 ducats and puts his own life at risk so Bassanio can pay his debts and go to Belmont. Three thousand ducats was a large sum of money during that age, and the penalty for failing to pay it would be even harsher. Shylock, whom they borrowed the money from, demanded a pound of flesh from Antonio if he failed to repay the money. Antonio willingly agrees to these terms, and Bassanio heads off to Belmont to woo Portia. After Bassanio has left, Antonio becomes somewhat upset, almost as if he misses his friend more than he should. Further bolstering the idea that the relationship could be homosocial are Bassanio’s actions when he hears that Antonio has gone to jail because he has not been able to repay Shylock on time. Antonio cannot pay these debts because his ships have wrecked, costing him much of his money. Bassanio learns this and leaves Belmont to return to Venice in the hopes that he might save Antonio. Of course, Portia’s intervention saves Antonio, but the fact remains that Bassanio left Belmont and Portia in order to save Antonio, who certainly should not be more important than his new wife. He could have just sent Shylock 3,000 ducats to pay the debt, as Bassanio would now have the means to do so. To leave one’s wife so soon after marriage was almost scandalous during Shakespeare’s time, acceptable only in whaling families, where the action was commonplace. Also supporting the homosocial argument is the issue of the ring. Portia gives Bassanio a ring before he leaves Belmont. She tells him that the ring symbolizes all the love she has for him and that he should never give it up, for if he does, he has forsaken her for another. In this age, unlike modern times, the man usually gave the woman a ring, but not vice versa. Portia giving Bassanio the ring is more a symbol of her dominance in the relationship, but it becomes important to the argument for a homosocial relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. However, to understand this, one must understand the events leading up to Antonio’s release from jail. Bassanio left Belmont for the purpose of saving Antonio, but his efforts seem futile. It is when Portia arrives, dressed as one of her servants, Balthazaar, and argues that Shylock can only take a pound of Antonio’s flesh, not a drop of blood, that Antonio wins his release. In this act, Portia also hands Antonio his revenge on Shylock, whom she proves has planned the death of Antonio. Bassanio, ignorant that his wife followed him to Venice, offers Portia the money he carried with him to Venice, hoping that he could pay Antonio’s debt in person. Portia declines the money, but demands the ring she gave to Bassanio. Bassanio at first refuses to give up the ring, but Antonio convinces him to give it up. Playgoers must ask themselves the question: whom does Bassanio love more? If Antonio can convince Bassanio to give up the symbol of his wife’s love, does that mean Bassanio loves Antonio more than Portia? Does he love Portia at all? These are the questions raised by the incident with the ring. One also wonders if Antonio is jealous of Portia.
One must wonder, however, if the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is just friendship. The pair seem to roam within the same social circles and have many of the same friends. The playgoer is also disdainful of the idea that they were in a homosocial relationship due to Bassanio’s dinner invitation to Shylock. While in a homosocial relationship, Bassanio would most likely share Antonio’s extreme dislike for the Jewish moneylender, if they were just friends, then it would be acceptable for Bassanio to ask Shylock to dine at his home. Further, if the relationship was homosocial, would Bassanio have married Portia in the first place? Most likely not, because cheating on one’s wife was taboo in the era, especially with a man. It would be one thing to be in a homosexual relationship, which could be a social stigma, but to be cheating on one’s wife in a homosexual relationship would be even more devastating if discovered. By his marriage, Bassanio cuts off any chance of his relationship with Antonio growing into the realm of the sexual. The few things that refute this argument are the same things that lend themselves to a homosocial relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. There is, however, one last argument, and its roots are in an anomaly.
There is one line in The Merchant of Venice that could possibly destroy either of these two arguments, and that line reads: “…Bassanio, your most noble kinsman” (1.1.60). The term kinsman in Shakespeare often refers to a cousin. If Bassanio and Antonio are cousins, then it is no longer questionable for Antonio to lend Bassanio the 3,000 ducats, nor is Bassanio’s departure from Belmont for Venice questionable. However, if one is to look at this argument with a modern eye, they should remain mindful of some Japanese films where the term “cousin” applies to homosexual lovers. This means that the line could further bolster the homosocial argument. However, Bassanio and Antonio’s possible family ties are only referred to once in the entirety of the play, which could mean that Shakespeare made a mistake, or forgot that he had ever made the reference, as some writers do.
Ultimately, there is no way to know the true nature of Bassanio and Antonio’s relationship. William Shakespeare has been dead for centuries, thus one cannot ask him what the nature of the relationship was. In truth, it should be left up to the playgoer to decide what they think the true nature of the relationship is, because it will cause the play to mean more to them if they decide for themselves. If a play causes the viewer to think for themselves about the play, to try to fathom the facets of the story, then the play is far more effective. The relationship, however, whatever its true form may be, is important to the play as a whole.
Without the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, there would have two stories in the play, neither of them having any bearing on the other. In truth, neither of the stories could have occurred without the relationship. This is because the one of the acts that sets both stories in motion is Bassanio asking Antonio for money. If Antonio had not lent Bassanio the 3,000 ducats, Bassanio would not have been able to go to Belmont to win Portia. Antonio would not have gone to jail because of his debt to Shylock – there would have been no debt. In essence, the play would not have occurred without whatever sort of relationship Bassanio and Antonio had. This is because there would have been no conflict in the play resulting from Antonio and Shylock’s agreement over the ducats and a pound of flesh.
Shakespeare left the playgoer or the reader so many clues to the nature of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio that it is impossible for one to fathom exactly what the nature of the relationship was. There are three clear arguments for the nature of the relationship, the first that the relationship was homosocial, the second that it was just friendship, and the third that they truly were kin. Without whatever relationship they had, the major conflicts in The Merchant of Venice never would have been possible because the underlying force behind the play was the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. Although one cannot prove which stand is true, the fact will always remain that the relationship was important to the story, as well as know that there would not be a story without the relationship of Bassanio and Antonio. The answers are up to the one who watches or reads the play, and when one believes something and figures that something out for themselves, it is very hard to convince them that they are wrong.
The Merchant of Venice. Toronto: