Charges of anti-Semitism are standard fare when it comes to The Merchant of Venice, but a new film adaptation of Shakespeare's play also raises another controversial question--was the merchant gay? An emotionally charged kiss between two men raises the issue of their sexual orientation, but even the actors who play them do not agree about what the kiss means.
The film, which opened nationally Wednesday, is based on Shakespeare's play about the merchant Antonio, whose friend Bassanio is deeply in debt and needs money to woo an heiress named Portia. To help his friend, Antonio borrows money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who has been subjected to past prejudice and anti-Semitic insults from Antonio. In lieu of interest, Shylock, played by Al Pacino, demands a pound of Antonio's flesh if the loan is not repaid. Despite a speech considered a classic plea for tolerance, The Merchant of Venice has long sparked charges of anti-Semitism for its unflattering portrait of Shylock. Director Michael Radford mitigates that characterization by portraying the indignities Jews faced in 16th-century Venice. While quenching that fire, Radford fueled another. Early in the film, when Bassanio asks Antonio for the money, Radford has the two retire to Antonio's bedroom to talk. They discuss Bassanio's plans, and Antonio agrees to help. Before he leaves, Bassanio delivers a kiss that is as passionate as any with Portia.
Joseph Fiennes, who plays Bassanio, is comfortable with the kiss and the idea that the two men may be lovers. "I would never invent something before doing my detective work in the text," he told Reuters. "If you look at the choice of language...you'll read very sensuous language. That's the key for me in the relationship," he said. "The great thing about Shakespeare and why he's so difficult to pin down is his ambiguity. He's not saying they're gay or they're straight; he's leaving it up to his actors. I feel there has to be a great love between the two characters...there's great attraction. I don't think they have slept together, but that's for the audience to decide."
But Jeremy Irons, who plays Antonio, was less convinced that the merchant was motivated by more than deep friendship. "Be very careful if you see two men kissing each other that you don't jump to the wrong conclusions," Irons said. "In Shakespeare's time male platonic love was the highest form of love...male platonic affection was regarded as a higher form of love to male-female, even husband and wife." Irons added, "It's important that there be a strong love," but he also said, "I didn't want it to be a homosexual love, because that's an easy option. I didn't feel there were any clues. I was very surprised when Bassanio kissed me. And he only did it in one take."
Shakespeare scholars have not generally considered a homosexual motivation for Antonio, said Herman Gollob, author of Me and Shakespeare: Adventures with the Bard, who attributed the kiss to "directorial license." "The Catamite of Venice has not been thought about as another title for the play," Gollob told Reuters.
Radford, who directed the Italian film Il Postino (The Postman), said he felt it was important to emphasize Antonio's love for Bassanio because of the play's final act, in which Bassanio's feelings for Portia and Antonio are tested. "Obviously you can emphasize one thing or another," Radford said, promoting the film in New York this month.