Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Merchant of Venice - Bassanio's Longtime Companion


Having argued that Antonio's depression is exclusively economic, I now offer a counter-point.

I recently showed my students scenes from both Trevor Nunn and Michael Radford's screen productions of The Merchant of Venice. The Nunn is set in 1930s Germany, smack in the crease between the Weimar Republic and the rise to power of Hitler's fascist Nazi Party. Now, neither of those provide any overt imagery in the video (there are no Nazis tromping around Belmont or the ghetto, not even a uniform), but the essense of each is implied by the setting. Nunn opens the play in a cabaret, where a drunken Gratiano does his opening lines ("Let me play the fool") from the stage like a bad stand-up comedian. Antonio (David Bamber) plays piano, and when his friends scamper off, leaving Bassanio, he lights up, runs his fingers gently through Bassanio's hair, and smiles. Until Bassanio makes it clear that he wants money to woo Portia. Now Antonio is depressed, slightly petulant.

So Nunn not only makes Antonio a homosexual, he grounds it in Weimar decadence symbolized by the cabaret. And he uses the same vibe from the setting to put extra bite in the anti-semitic comments by the Venetian Christians (although I assume this isn't really Venice). Nunn does not, however, close the production on a lonely, un-partnered Antonio. (In fact, he gives the last scene to Jesscia, who falls to her knees after hearing of her father's enforced will and sings a Hebrew song that she has sung before with her father.) Instead, Antonio's real final moment comes when he is faced with death at the point of Shylock's knife. He clasps Bassanio in a markedly unmannly hug. I was kind of surprised that all the stiff fascist types in the courtroom didn't cringe.

Radford also implies Antonio's homosexuality. It comes first when the sad Antonio (Jeremy Irons) gazes out the window of his Venetian loft apartment. Down in the canal he sees Bassanio. He looks longingly wistful. Irons' Antonio may not know why he is sad, but he is nothing but. I don't think he cracks a smile at any point in the film. He is morose and alone. But it is his gaze, directed frequently toward Bassanio, that points to the subtext. Perhaps, one thinks wishing Irons would lighten up, he's gay.

Talking with friends who've seen other productions of Merchant of Venice recently, I find the gay Antonio seems to be both an accessible and typical interpretation. That doesn't surprise me because that subtext fits neatly into each of Antonio's scenes that pertain to the romantic plot and doesn't get in the way at all of the economic plot. Yet I think this raises an interesting question: where does a gay Antonio get us, other than to explain his initial "sadness" and final aloneness? (Maybe that's enough.) Can it provide greater insight into his reasons for turning fatalistic and giving up on any expectation of mercy from Shylock? Can it inform some aspect of his intense dislike of Shylock? Does it explain, and this makes an assumption of Bassanio as well, Bassanio's quick demotion of Portia ("esteemed not above" Antonio's life) in the courtroom?

I'm not sure, but one area I think such a characterization is compelling is in establishing Christian hypocrisy. Both movies I mentioned above seek to avoid the anti-semitism of the play by balancing the nasty stuff folks like Gratiano, Salarino, and Solanio say about Shylock with frequent glimpses of their own villainous natures. Radford specifically makes it overt, depicting the Christians frequently cavorting with prostitutes (bare-breasted babes who turn up throughout the film). Nunn gives us a raven-haired Portia who might easily have been cast as Jessica, a rather delightful ambiguity that underscores the insanity of most racial prejudice. A gay Antonio enhances this "let he who is without sin…" approach to the play. Especially in the Nunn, where we know that Jews were not the only group to go into Hitler's concentration camps.

I went last week to see the Guthrie Theatre's production of Merchant of Venice, where Antonio was played by longtime Guthrie actor Richard Iglewski. I kept my eye on him throughout and didn't feel that he attempted to make homosexuality a part of his portrayal. Certainly, I thought, he offered nothing overt. After the play however a colleague, himself gay, complained that Iglewski had turned Antonio into a "tired old gay," an opinion shared by a friend of his in theater who had also seen the production. Perhaps that is where the role is now, in 2007. We no longer think of Antonio as the merchant of Venice. Now, that's Shylock. Instead, we assume Antonio's gayness even without clear indicators because it makes cultural sense for us, and fits neatly into Shakespeare's play, providing answers to those questions every ninth-grader offers: Why is Antonio sad? And why is Antonio alone at the end of the play?

Happily yours,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't see the setting of Nunn's "Merchant" at the flexion point between Weimar and Nazi Germany. This is a serious misreading of the staging. In fact, it is clearly set in Fascist Italy of the 1930s. Portia, Bassanio, Antonio, Gratiano et. al. are presented as part of the decadent "glitterati" of the era as they frolic between the cabarets of the Rialto and the pastoral fantasy resort of the Belmonte.