The Merchant of Venice is perhaps one of the most unique of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the interaction and relationships between the characters, and it adds a complexity to a plot that would otherwise be seen as strictly comical and superficial. One of the main societal constructs that Shakespeare addresses through the characters of Bassanio, Antonio, and Portia is the extent and importance of male-to-male friendships versus a marriage covenant, and which type of relationship should be the most valued and be highest esteemed in a man’s life. Antonio and Portia are both painted as admirable and strong characters, which is somewhat rare for the main female character, and thus this makes Bassanio’s bond with both of them hard to break on either account. Throughout the play, there are several instances that exemplify Bassanio’s desire to both maintain an intimate friendship with Antonio and prove his love and commitment to Portia.
There is virtually no room for doubt that Antonio and Bassanio are very close friends; this can be easily inferred from the tender and slightly dramatic way that they speak to each other. They often refer to each other using the word “love,” such as “my love,” which adds a depth to their relationship deeper than just superficial adoration. Bassanio is convinced that he and Antonio are so close that Antonio would be willing to take another chance of him and lend him money, and he is correct, for Antonio says, “My purse, my person, my extremest means, lie all unlock’d to your occasions” (1.1.237). Bassanio’s deep respect and trust in Antonio make their relationship seem strong and virtually unbreakable, that is, until Portia enters the picture.
In addition to Antonio, Bassanio also shows his love for Portia through his eloquent speech about her in Act 1 scene 1, saying “she is fair, and fairer than that word, Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes I did receive far speechless messages…and her sunny locks/Hang on her temples like a golden fleece.” Portia is not only painted as a beautiful and virtuous woman, but also a strong and independent heiress. In Act III, scene 5, before the court scene, when Lorenzo asks if Jessica likes Portia, she admirably explains she likes her “past all expressing,” and goes on to comment that “if two gods should play some heavenly match,” she was made perfect with no match found on earth. During the court scene, we see how truly smart and cunning Portia is as she disguises as an expert of law and backs Shylock into a corner with her logic, accomplishing the goal of sparing Antonio’s life that her fellow male characters failed to reach. Unbeknownst to Bassiano, the praise he bestows on the “law clerk” is actually a compliment to his wife’s wits and character, although he does not see through her disguise in this scene.
Act IV of The Merchant of Venice is the pivotal scene of the play on many accounts; not only does it serve as the climax, where both Antonio’s and Shylock’s fates are determined, but it raises some questions regarding the relationships between characters and sheds light on the difference between gender roles and friendships/marriages. It is interesting that in order to be seen as anything other than a pretty face, Portia had to disguise herself as a man, and from there she earns more respect from everyone in the court room, including her husband. Although Bassanio had made a vow to Portia to keep her ring, saying, “But when this ring/Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence: O, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead,” Portia’s male character tests his commitment, and when it comes down to it, Bassanio admits that “Life itself, my wife, and all the world, Are not with me esteem’d above [Antonio’s] life: I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all here to this devil, to deliver [Antonio]” (4.1.415). As Bassanio gives away the ring, although not without some hesitation and resistance (“This ring was given me by my wife; And when she put it on, she made me vow that I should neither sell nor give nor lose it.”),
Antonio sums up the attitudes on male v. female relationships portrayed in this play when he states, “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring: Let his deservings and my love withal be valued against your wife’s commandment” (4.1.447). In my opinion, this is perhaps the most important line that Shakespeare writes in terms of this idea because it reflects that, even after all of the good Portia had accomplished and all of her virtues, the characters (and, therefore, their society) believed that male relationships were superior just on the basis of the gender male itself. Basically, when two people, a man and a woman, are equally qualified for a position (in this case, Bassanio’s relationship), the male will be chosen purely based on gender. Surprisingly, it’s an argument that people still deal with in today’s society, and in that way Shakespeare’s works are perhaps more modern than they are ancient.