Shakespeare and homosociality: defying elizabethan comformity

Although considered light and delightful entertainment, Shakespeare’s plays of comedy often address serious issues confronting Elizabethan values of propriety and social decorum. Anti-Semitism, death and homosexuality are frequent themes woven in his plays and the latter is addressed in Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. In exhibiting the inherent bonds that transpire between males Shakespeare substantiates their acts of loyalty and devotion with measures that try the men’s love; it is then that the reader comprehends Bassanio and Claudio’s willingness to select their male relationships over their romantic ones. Battling through mutual experiences the men in both Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice are bonded in ties of loyalty, devotion and love far surpassing the strength of heterosexual marriages in the plays. Shakespeare artfully designs this rift between the genders to shatter the conservatism of Elizabethan notions of propriety. The homosocial bonds in Much Ado About Nothing are established immediately in the introduction of the play. The men are announced to the women of Messina as an arriving group of valiant gentlemen visiting from a well-fought war. War in itself is a highly masculine affair, an event where passionate and testosterone filled men battle side by side and are either slain by the sword of a man or saved by the hand of another. Blood and sweat is shed and shared, forming a glutinous bond for a fraternity in which the members are hazed in trials of pain, defeat and triumph. Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, is the president of his fraternity. Loyalty, deference and respect are the advantages of his alpha station and the hierarchical male structure lends order in the homosocial bonds of the play. The notion of war as a masculine activity is also prevalent in The Merchant of Venice, yet it must be considered on a smaller and subtler scale between the individual characters. Shakespeare utilizes the images of blood, pain and money as the traits of Antonio and Shylock’s contract in The Merchant of Venice since all three characteristics are exceptionally phallic and masculine in nature. The arrangement symbolically exhibits two rudiments of homosocial bonds. The motivation for both parties involved is highly male-driven. After hearing of Shylocks’ extreme terms of collection (should a payment default occur) Antonio demonstrates his deep devotion to Bassanio when he agrees to serve as his guarantor. Whether or not Antonio’s love is of a homosexual nature is unclear, however his loyalty and strong affections may not be construed as purely platonic. At one point he claims ready to surrender to Bassanio his, “ purse, my person, my extremest means. Lie all unlock’d to your occasion”(1. 1. 140). Shylock’s incentive for imposing such a ruthless collection of Antonio’s flesh is motivated by his hatred for Antonio as a man, a man who has battered Shylock’s pride with his publicly slurred Anti-Semantic epithets. On account of to its bloody harshness alone itt may be assumed that Shylock would have never established such an appalling consequence on a female borrower. The pain from severing a pound of flesh is unthinkable for a woman to endure but not for a man. Antonio’s inability to recompense the debt triggers a declaration of war between Shylock and himself and assesses Bassanio’s allegiance to Antonio. Antonio’s ability to sacrifice his flesh and blood for Bassanio’s happiness speaks volumes for his love, and his acts of loyalty are not unrequited. Bassanio’s forsaken pride in accepting Portia’s funds for the Venice excursion coupled with his willingness to leave his new bride exhibits his loyalty to Antonio. Loyalty is a priority in homosocial relationships, and at one point in the play Portia speculates if Bassanio would forfeit their love for Antonio. Subsequent to Antonio’s release from Shylock’s bond Bassanio wishes to pay Portia (garbed in a manly disguise) a fee for her legal services in freeing Antonio. Initially resistant to Portia’s request for his wedding ring claiming “ there’s more depends on this than value” (4. 1. 439), Bassanio is ultimately persuaded by Antonio to “ let him have the ring. Let his deservings and my love withal. Be valu’d ‘ gainst your wife’s commandment” (4. 1. 454-456). In this scene Antonio clearly asserts his dominance over Portia. He successfully assures Bassanio that their love and loyalty yields precedence over Bassanio’s marriage to Portia, and that no ring is worth not paying for the services rendered in saving their homosocial relationship. Portia’s response to Bassanio’s surrender of the ring is comparable a lover scorned by infidelity; she conjures an anecdote of her own infidelity in efforts to retributively hurt his emotions. Portia’s rejoinder confirms that she is threatened by the breadth and deepness of Antonio and Bassanio’s homosocial bond. It is this loyalty between the two men that is also similarly established between Don Pedro and Claudio’s relationship in Much Ado About Nothing. The homosocial bond between young Claudio and Don Pedro is analogous to that of a father and son, or between male siblings. Don Pedro serves as his mentor and advisor in all things regarding love and life. Don Pedro grants Claudio his approval of Hero, and provides Claudio a service by wooing the young maiden for him. Claudio, young and impressionable, is so smitten by Don Pedro that he believes the man’s advice and counsel no matter the result. As an illustration one must consider Claudio’s reaction upon hearing Don John’s accusation of Don Pedro’s endeavors to woo Hero for himself. Claudio rationalizes Don Pedro’s behavior by stating, “ Friendship is constant in all other things. Save in the office and affairs of love” (2. 1. 153-154). However, it is interesting to note that when Claudio proclaims this he simultaneously decides to cease his attempts in acquiring Hero, in essence deferring to Don Pedro’s whim. Additionally he contradictorily selects Don Pedro’s friendship over the pursuit of Hero albeit his proclamations that love override friendships. Note as well with whom Claudio pairs himself with subsequent to learning of Hero’s supposed infidelity—it is by no coincidence that Don Pedro is the backbone that supports Claudio. Benedick’s willingness to challenge Claudio to a duel in avenging Hero’s honor may appear as a female influenced decision. His disposition has radically shifted in regards to his homosocial loyalties to his crew. When Beatrice implores Benedick to kill Claudio he initially refuses and Beatrice resorts to attacking the strength of his love, stating, “ I am gone though I am here. There is no love in you. —Nay, I pray you, let me go” (4. 2. 291). She further appeals to Benedick’s desire to “ prove” his love by stating, “ Use your love some other way than swearing by it.” (4. 2. 320). These challenges of Benedick’s declaration of love, coupled with his lusty desires for Beatrice compels Benedick to challenge his homosocial bond with Claudio. Although he might have been convinced of it at the time, it is not love that motivates the duel. The end of the play the reader discovers that Beatrice and Benedick are married out of convenience and friendship rather than out of love—which implies that love was never the cause of Benedick’s challenge to Claudio, but was his own pride that threw down the glove. Benedick’s glove in Much Ado About Nothing represents a challenge, and in a sense one may symbolically interpret Shakespeare’s homosocial bonds as a gloved challenge thrown to conservative Elizabethan notions of marriage. Portia represents society’s image of homosexuality and homosocial tendencies—she is aware that it exists, and in her attempts to diminish the threat she casts the dilemma aside. The dilemma for Portia is Antonio himself. Although Shakespeare resolves both plays with gender appropriate unifications, one must delve deeper to unmask the motivations of each. Money and beauty joins Portia and Bassanio, duty and default marries Claudio to Hero and friendship binds Beatrice and Benedick. All these attributes are characteristics of platonic relationships. Deep affection, devotion and loyalty are the true characteristics of love, and all three exist in the homosocial bonds rather than the heterosexual ones. As a reminder of such a notion Shakespeare retains Antonio and Bassanio at the end of the play as lingering reminders that love is not limited to the enjoyment of men and women—but to men to men alike.