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The Merchant of Venice Essay

From ancient times, through to the Renaissance, friendship between two men was regarded as the highest form of social relationship, even surpassing that between a man and a woman in matrimony. This is portrayed through “The Merchant of Venice”, written by William Shakespeare which was written between 1556 and 1558. This platonic natured friendship is still portrayed in modern literature, but due to changed opinions because of the society in which it was written it is more subtle in expressions as portrayed in “The Running Man” by Michael Gerard Bauer, which was written in 2003.

Both texts were intended for different audiences to perceive them in the era they were written in. Where Shakespeare did not even consider the ill perception of his characters friendship, but Bauer reflected society through a character and her actions. This illustrates the change that has occurred in society on their views of a noble friendship. Elizabethans believed that a platonic noble friendship could exist between two men. Edward Spenser was perhaps the most illustrious of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and his writings were analysed by Charles G. Smith in “Spenser’s Theory of Friendship”, which was written in 1935.

It states “Expressed in the simplest terms the ideas (of noble friendships) are friendship is based on virtue, friendship based on equality, friendship based on similarity… and friends goods are common goods” this applies to both The “Merchant” and The “Running Man”. This was openly expressed in “The Merchant of Venice” By William Shakespeare through the two characters of Antonio and Bassanio. In Act 1 scene 1 Antonio is portrayed as someone who is depressed; “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” ( Act 1 scene 1, lines 1-2).

The Elizabethan audience of Shakespeare’s time will attribute Antonio’s possession of melancholic humour as affecting his temperament. This is likely as he denies that it is his anxiety over his ships. Their relationship is based on true friendship which contains affection, generosity, self-sacrifice and consideration for eachother. The deep affection which Antonio has for Bassanio is hinted at by Solanio who says ; “ I think he only loves the world for him. ” (Act 2 , scene 3, line 50).

Antonio would go out of his way to help Bassanio to please him, even after spitting on Shylock and calling him a “cut throat dog” he borrows money with his life up for take in the bond to make Bassanio happy, which at this stage is to gain Portia’s hand in marriage. This is the possible source of Antonio’s depression where he wants to be Bassanio’s main focus but he is now looking for more, which Antonio cannot give him as he wants to be the best person in his life. As Portia can offer more than Antonio, wealth and marriage, in making Bassanio happy this results in Antonio’s earlier depressed state.

To offer his life as bond in a loan to woo Portia Antonio is trying to offer one thing Portia cant and that is his life. Antonio portrays the attributes of “virtue” and “equality” in Spencer’s theory therefore are the truest of examples of a noble friendship. Even when facing death, Antonio shows kindness and consideration, and willingness to die for his fair friend. Antonio turns to comfort Bassanio and says; “Give me your hand Bassanio; fare you well. Grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you. ” ( act 5, scene 1, line 262-266).

Bassanio in turn appreciates Antonio’s friendship. He constantly confided in his yearning to gain Portia as a wife and is grateful for the opportunity. He described Antonio to Portia as ; “ the dearest friend to me, the kindest man” (Act 3, scene 2, lines 209-294). Bassanio’s passionate chase of Portia is why Antonio had created the bond with Shylock in the beginning, yet in the court room Bassanio tells Antonio; “But life itself, my wife and all the world… I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all Here to this devil, to deliver you. (Act 5 scene 1 282-285).

Through this it is proved that the noble friendship is in fact two sided, as Bassanio feels the same platonic love for Antonio to the point where he would rather give up all he had wanted in order to save him. This is important because Antonio’s deep friendship and dependence on Bassanio, his willingness to risk his life on Bassanio’s account, and his draining of his own finances to support Bassanio has been read as supporting the theory that Antonio is homosexual.

Some people believe that Antonio was just very good friends with Bassanio, and that he was almost like a son. Bassanio could possibly be conceived as more masculine by wooing the girl and gaining the vast wealth compared to Antonio who seems as deeply in love with Bassanio. In that time period, the language was much more expressive, so people in the modern day society took Antonio to be homosexual when in fact due to the ‘masculine” Bassanio also expressing his loyalty towards Antonio, and no further evidence, this is not the case.

The Elizabethan audience would appreciate the relationship the way Shakespeare intended as they are who he is writing for, whereas twenty first century reading of the relationship may be coloured by our own pre-concerned ideas. The theme of a noble friendship carries through the literary periods right up until the most recent, the modernism area. This is portrayed through the novel “The Running Man” by Michael Gerard Bauer. Tom Leyton and Joseph’s first meeting was when Caroline Leyton suggested Joseph that he draws her brother, Tom, for his school art project.

Reluctantly Joseph agrees to the idea and their meeting is not as Joseph would have expected due to spiralling rumours of “perversion and dark secrets”. “Joseph would have seen that Tom Leyton’s eyes were dark green with deep flecks of gold within them, but they appeared to him only as the ghostly remains of a fire that had been swallowed by the night and gone cold. ” This illustrates the internal battle Tom has been going through to the point where he “just doesn’t feel anymore”. Joseph and Tom, like Antonio and Bassanio, develop to a degree a modern noble friendship.

Neither Tom or Joseph would realise their effect on one another until Tom’s tragic death but the significant change through the novel is apparent in chapter one where Joseph feels “encircled” by his cocoon, it “held him” like an “unwelcome and unyielding embrace”. In chapter six, the silkworm eggs have hatched and is a strong turning point in the novel because Joseph is revealing his true personality like a “lizard shedding his skin”, he has “hatched” out of his “cocoon” or “shell”. They follow Spenser’s criteria of a noble friendship in a more modern sense.

Emotions are not widely expressed in The Running Man until the end of the novel due the time era in which it was written. Showing feelings to another male is considered negatively from society’s perception. This was not always the case compared to the renaissance era where everybody openly expressed their feelings to one another. Bauer recognised this change and intended two males enjoying each other’s company to be just that, it is only our sad idea of paedophilia that have raised questions on something so innocent as a friendship.

Yes, in our society dark things such as older men preying on younger boys does happen but it does not mean it happens in every single time contact occurs between the two. Throughout the story the idea of miracles is questioned. Tom as a boy wished and prayed for silk worms of his own. “Just one silkworm… such a simple thing” to his disbelief every leaf he turned over he did not find a single silkworm. “But every time the leaf was bare…I cursed god with all the passion of betrayal”. Yet that night a local boy he had never met dropped off silkworms, a whole box, right to his doorstep. So I got my miracle after all… I had never been so frightened in my life”.

The novel raises questions about the nature of miracles and whether or not we should believe in them. Yet as Tom Leyton lay dying at the bottom of the mulberry tree, the man who had influences Joseph to contradict miracles, had created a miracle of his own. Instead of seeking out his tablets he somewhat pursued to complete his miracle for Joseph, because Joseph had been his. The change or revelation Tom’s character shows that Bauer used Tom and Joseph’s relationship to illustrate the idea that a life changing friendship can occur without ulterior motives.

It is hard to believe that modern society is struggling to find this plausible. The idea of whether or not a noble friendship can occur between two males has been called to question, especially between males of vast differing ages, like Joseph and Tom, and also Antonio and Bassanio. This is desperately sad due to individuals possibly missing out, not only on an interesting friendship but also a life changing experience. During Shakespeare’s and Spenser’s literary period it was widely acceptable for a noble friendship to occur and they would not even think to question it, whereas in modern day it is analysed for ulterior motives.

This could possibly be due to us being more consciously aware of gay relationships. Therefore awareness causes suspicion. We, as a society, are more accepting of gay relationships in general, but are still awkward and squeamish about publicly approaching the subject. It is a raw area, and acceptability does not directly link to being understanding. An example is Mrs Mossop, in The Running Man, who did not understand the motives in Joseph’s and Tom’s relationship and instantly became suspicious due to her bias and her abusive past.

Bauer used Mrs Mossop as a representation of our society to illustrate that he knew how his novel was to be perceived, whereas Shakespeare did not. Also, the fact that the relationships between not only Tom and Joseph but Antonio and Bassanio have been questions shows the direct suspicion of society. Is it so wrong to experience a meaningful relationship with another individual, especially if both are males? Come to think of it, a close relationship between two females is not called on to question as frequent as male relationships. This reflects negatively on society in my opinion.

The fact that we find it uncomfortable to accept male relationships in a platonic sense means that we are insecure. Insecure of the image a noble friendship may portray to others, therefore it is a go zone. In conclusion, the ancient definition of a “noble friendship” between two men regarded as an important virtue is highly regarded in the play “The Merchant of Venice” and in “The Running Man”. Although the two texts are written in different literary period they portray the same importance in a friendship through different characters.

In the “Merchant” it could be argued that the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio was not platonic in nature and the friendship between Joseph and Tom, with Tom being at least 30 years his senior, was also not platonic on Tom’s part. But it is the authors purpose and intended audience that are key to understand their portrayal of a noble friendship. Shakespeare was writing for an audience that expected noble friendships, whereas Bauer was aware of society’s perception and manipulated that through Mrs Mossop who is the “enemy” of the novel.


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