Homoscocial and Homoerotiscism in Shakespeare

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Consider the relationship between homosocial and homoerotic in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and A Twelfth Night.

“To talk of an Individual in this period as being or not being a ‘homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading” (Bray, 1982, pg. 16) Before a solid argument can commence the reader has to first distinguish a number of key points of view, and more over understand them. The problem with such arguments is of course the hurdle between contemporary opinions and renaissance beliefs. The majority of modern reader/audiences have an understanding of homosexuality, or it in some way has been visible to them. This leads to the problem of a modern audience assuming a character is a homosexual based on modern presumptions. However what would be regarded as gay in today’s society may not have during the renaissance. Another issue that must be raised when considering this essay is the difference between ‘homosocial’ and ‘homoerotic’. Homosocial is defined by a relationship of a non-sexual or romantic nature between two or more members of the same sex. Homoerotic is defined as sexual attraction between members of the same-sex. There for it is imperative the reader stay objective when considering the notions of homosocial and homoerotic behaviour. The reader must also try to remember the contextual factors in which it was written and the audience/readers estimations.

The first relationship this essay will focus on is the one between Antonio and Bassanio from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. These two share a very strong friendship, so much so that Antonio offers to lend Bassanio a very large sum of money. Antonio being a wealthy merchant however does not have the cash upfront as it is tied up in his merchandise off shore. He thus decides to go to a Jewish money lender called Shylock and offers his property as guarantee for the loan. Shylock has been spurned by the Venetian citizens on numerous occasions and quite frequently retells these cruelties. As a result instead of the property he decides he would rather have a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock -“In such a place, such sum or sums as are/Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit/Be nominated for an equal pound/Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me.” (Act 1, scene 3) Antonio – “Content, i' faith: I'll seal to such a bond/And say there is much kindness in the Jew” (Act 1, scene 3) In this exchange between Antonio and Shylock, we are exposed to the great lengths in which Antonio will go to make his friend and confidant Bassanio happy. He is willing to offer his life as insurance. This speaks magnitudes for the “love” these two share, and if you take the image of the flesh it could be said that the friends’ fates are now tied to one flesh. “Then the man (Adam) said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh..." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:23-25) To consider this image as a representation of marriage, this steers the reader/audience to believe that Antonio possibly loves Bassanio more than a friend. It could be implied that there is a romantic connection between the pair and thus that their relationship is homoerotic rather than homosocial. This is especially reinforced by the earlier scenes of the play where Antonio is displayed as a largely melancholic character. Antonio knows bassanio is in want of a wife; his depression could perhaps be originated from jealousy. On the other hand it could be argued that Antonio is just upset, because he is now going to be spending less time with Bassanio. One of the main problems with trying to define the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, is how often their relationship has switches between homoerotic and homosocial undertones. Generally it depends on how the reader takes their exchanges, for example Antonio’s melancholy at the...
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