Have you ever walked away from a conversation feeling like you got played? It might be that you spoke with someone much like Bassanio.
I’m not simply referring to the way Bassanio seems to drain Antonio’s bank accounts dry. That requires more than a few pretty words and empty promises. More, it requires a level of emotional intelligence to weasel his way into a place of Antonio’s friendship (and, arguably, his heart).
And when the play begins, that’s where we start. Straight away, we witness the connection between Bassanio and Antonio. It’s deep and genuine. These two truly know each other. Even their other friends must know this, as they leave the two to be alone with each other. Lorenzo tells Bassanio, “…since you have found Antonio / We two will leave you…” (I.i.69-70). This could imply that Bassanio and Antonio are so close that others might feel like a third wheel. Either way, their friends know and even acknowledge that Bassanio and Antonio are close.
This, as we can see in Act I, Scene 1, enables Bassanio to manipulate Antonio by redirecting the conversation. After Antonio enquires about the lady Bassanio is so interested in, he responds:
‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
And he continues to explain how he owes Antonio the most “in money and love” (I.i.131), but he needs more. Note that he uses the word love, thereby placing emphasis on their friendship. After all, what kind of friend would deny their friends in need? Especially a friendship like Antonio and Bassanio, who obviously care for each other. By consciously choosing to say “love,” he exploits the friendship between him and Antonio. It could be argued Antonio carries a homoerotic love for Bassanio, and Bassanio knows that and uses it to get what he wants, but that’s for another analysis, though still worth considering.
All this manipulation does not negate the fact that Bassanio does care for Antonio. Take, for instance, his response to Shylock’s bond, in which Antonio agrees to repay his debt with a piece of his flesh. He tells Antonio, “You shall not seal to such a bond for me; / I’ll rather dwell in my own necessity.” (II.i.147-148) It could be read that Bassanio is being humble as a farce in manipulation, but that would disregard his actions further into the play.
For example, in Act 3, Scene 2, Bassanio receives a letter detailing Antonio’s situation, unable to repay Shylock. Portia describes the letter stealing “…the color from Bassanio’s cheek…” in line 242. He pales at the thought of Antonio’s pain, and not for worry of losing Antonio’s money—he’s already guaranteed Portia’s, so his concern lies solely with Antonio’s wellbeing.
Portia also falls victim to Bassanio’s manipulations. In Act 3, when Bassanio first arrives at Belmont, he purposefully evades Portia’s questions. After his dramatic declaration that he feels tortured, Portia implores him to “…Then confess / What treason there is mingled with your love.” (III.ii.26-27) Bassanio insists there is no treason for him to confess, but Portia is not satisfied with the response.
Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack,
Where men, enforced, do speak anything.
Simply put, she doesn’t believe him. Bassanio quickly changes course in conversation, asking to try his luck at the caskets, and Portia allows it. By redirecting the topic of the conversation, he has manipulated Portia’s attention to something more considerable. With the caskets being a deciding factor in her marriage, it is a priority for Portia. And for Bassanio as well—without Portia’s marriage, he’ll lose any access he could have had to her family’s money.
But does Bassanio care for Portia as much as he does Antonio? After giving the lawyer Portia’s ring (which he swore to keep as an oath), Bassanio must make amends with Portia. She tells Bassanio to take the ring and keep his commitment better than before. Antonio acts as a guarantee again, this time offering his soul instead of his flesh.
I once did lend my body for his wealth,
Which but for that had your husband’s ring
Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,
My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord
Will never more break faith advisedly.
And so Bassanio takes the ring from Antonio for Portia. Not only is Antonio offering up himself for Bassanio’s good again, but Bassanio also takes it, even after the court battle with Shylock. Bassanio officially accepts Portia, at the risk of Antonio once again, who we know Bassanio loves in one way or another. So, I would argue that this is no longer about Portia’s money anymore. Bassanio must genuinely care about Portia in some way for him to risk the soul of someone he’s been shown to care about.
So, Bassanio may actively manipulate those around him to get what he wants, much like a conman, but I argue here he does have some compassion. Thus, the duality of Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice.