Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and queerbaiting
“Queerbaiting” is a term that was largely popularized in the early 2000s and continues to be used today. This term describes when an author provides subtextual hints to portray a character as potentially being queer to appease queer audiences, but never explicitly says the character falls anywhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum in order to maintain their heterosexual audiences. Mainstream media is riddled with examples of queerbaiting, and it is largely executed through the guise of same-sex “platonic” friendships. However, queerbaiting has been present in our culture long before the tactic to appease multiple audiences was ever given a title. In fact, William Shakespeare anticipated queerbaiting in the late 1500s. Through the exchanges of trust between his characters as well as his utilization of imagery and of verse, one can easily identify the subtextual connotations of queer relationships throughout Shakespeare’s plays, specifically “The Merchant of Venice.”
Shakespeare’s plays are extremely heteronormative, all possessing solely heterosexual marriages. Although none of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays are explicitly “straight” or “gay,” as sexuality is very much a wide spectrum, there are definite examples of same-sex desires in his works. In Shakespeare’s popular play “The Merchant of Venice,” the relationship between the characters Portia and Nerissa can be read as intimacy between two women of a sort that doesn’t exist between Portia and her male suitors. The intimacy and desire in the relationship between Portia and Nerissa informs their sexual orientation.
Before delving into the play itself, it is important to understand what being “homosexual” (to use contemporary terms) meant during the time in which the play was written. In the 1500s everyone was assumed to be “heterosexual.” However, there were certain people that engaged in homosexual behaviors. The penalty for engaging in homosexual behavior was execution and yet hardly anyone that engaged in homosexual behavior was executed. In fact, homosexual behavior was so prevalent that it began to become trivialized. In general, being a homosexual was a conceptual category and the notion that Portia and Narissa were written to have an intimate relationship that can inform their queer sexual orientation is valid because homosexual behavior was not entirely uncommon during the 1500s.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a play about exchange. Relationships, in a way, are a product of exchange. Portia confides in Nerissa, exchanging her trust for an emotional connection. The interactions between Portia and Nerissa possess a kind of intimacy and desire that informs their sexual orientation. For example, in Act 1 Scene 2, Portia confides in Nerissa that life (and men) has disappointed her: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world / I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree.” This is an intimate and serious confession. While Portia sometimes confesses such personal details to her male suitors, it is very rarely to this great of an extent. For example, when Portia tells Bassanio not to leave her, she uses vague and unpersonalized language: “There’s something tells me — but it is not love — I would not lose you, and you know yourself hate counsels not in such a quality.” Her use of words such as “something” and “you know yourself” informs the idea that she is being purposefully vague and leaving Bassanio to infer for himself what Portia’s innermost desires are – whereas in her confession to Nerissa, she outwardly provides Nerissa pieces of her innermost thoughts and fears.
In addition to intimate secrets being exchanged between the two women, the use of imagery in both of their language also seems to elude to a relationship that reaches beyond platonic. In Act 1 Scene 2, when Nerissa and Portia are discussing Portia’s disgust toward all of her male suitors, there is great use of imagery: “I had rather be married to a death’s-head with a bone in his mouth than to either of these.” Portia says she would rather be married to “death’s head with a bone in its mouth” than to her two suitors, and thus constructs a picture of this man that only her and Nerissa are aware of. To which Nerissa replies, “What did you think about that French lord, Monsieur le Bon?” and Portia responds with yet another imaginative insult. When Nerissa continues to prompt Portia’s humorous images of these men, the two characters are both in on the same joke, and the men are the butt of it. Portia and Nerissa are mutually constructing these images and entertaining them in these spaces, together. They’re sharing an affective emotional space in the humor they’re using to rail against these men.
There is also a prominent use of verse in “The Merchant of Venice.” For example, when Bassanio confesses his love to Portia, he says “‘Confess and love’ had been the very sum of my confession. O happy torment, when my torturer doth teach me answers for deliverance!” The confession of love to another is an intimate act, and Bassanio's use of verse heightens the intimacy of the language. Portia uses verse when talking with Nerissa as well, saying, “O me, the word “choose!” I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike — so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?” In this line, Portia is again disclosing personal information to Nerissa through the established intimate language of verse, suggesting an intimate nature in the relationship between the two characters.
The notion that Portia and Nerissa are explicitly one way or another on the spectrum of sexuality is not necessarily important. However, the intimate way the two characters interact with one another informs the possibility that they may love one another beyond platonic measures. To the eyes of many audience members, Portia and Nerissa’s relationship is largely seen as a platonic friendship. However, through Shakespeare’s anticipation of “queerbaiting,” one can infer that there may be an intimate romantic relationship between the two of them brewing below the surface.